The argumentum ad whingeum: an idea whose time can’t pass quick enough

The “marketplace of ideas” is usually less a showroom for shiny new models and more of a cheery Op Shop. So it’s a big deal when a genuinely new argument is spotted in the wild – even, or perhaps especially, when it comes from an unexpected source.

Enter Senator David Leyonhjelm.

I’ve written about Senator Leyonhjelm more than once on these pages, and was resolved not to do so again. But the Senator and his staff have created what looks like a novel argument against lockout laws, which I propose to call the argumentum ad whingeum: the “argument from whingeing”.

Lockouts and liberty

It’s hardly surprising that a libertarian like Leyonhjelm opposes lockout laws, such as those in force in inner Sydney. Disputes over restricting the sale of alcohol to reduce the incidence of violence and injury is a classic case of the liberal harm principle – you should be free to do what you like so long as you don’t harm anyone else – coming up against a utilitarian concern for reducing overall harm.

One would entirely expect libertarians and classical liberals (not always a clear distinction) to take the side of liberty here. If I’m not causing anyone else any harm by drinking, why should my right to do so be curtained because other people can’t seem to get a skinful without king-hitting someone? Why should I be answerable for what other people do?

For the record, I don’t think that argument is the end of the story, but on its own terms it’s neither absurd nor trivial.

But Leyonhjelm deployed another, more novel argument: health workers defending the lockout laws are merely whingeing about the things they are paid to do. And given they can simply choose not to do those jobs, these concerns can be disregarded.

Of vets and trauma

Leyonhjelm, to his credit, starts his argument by drawing on personal experience:

Many years ago, when I first started working as a veterinarian, I accepted there would be parts of my job I wouldn’t like. Vets, as everyone knows, are expected to put animals to sleep, some when they are perfectly healthy. It can become wearing. Obviously other vets have issues too; vets are four times more likely to commit suicide than members of the general population.

The reason you probably didn’t know that little factoid is because we vets are disinclined to complain about our lot. By contrast, it seems barely a day goes past without members of the medical profession telling everyone how hard they’ve got it.

Leyonhjelm points to at least three serious issues here: the frequency with which healthy animals are euthanised, the moral injury this inflicts on the vets made to do so, and the appallingly high rate of suicide within the veterinary profession. We should be talking about all of this.

Except Leyonhjelm apparently thinks vets are right not to talk about this, and, by analogy, doctor, nurses and surgeons shouldn’t complain about alcohol-related trauma. They should simply get on with patching it up, or find another job:

Yes, violence causes injury and doctors are paid to treat the injuries. But their involvement is a matter of choice; they are not compelled “to clean up the awful toll”. Indeed, they don’t have to do trauma or emergency medicine, or even medicine itself, at all. Moreover, no-one is forced to join the police or ambulance service.

In fact, doctors demanding lockouts because they don’t like treating the victims of violence is equivalent to teachers demanding parents keep dumb kids at home. They should do their jobs, or find a job that they’d rather do.

So, what exactly is being argued here? And is this new argument any good?

Moral judgements vs whingeing


Senator David Leyonhjelm
AAP Image/Lukas Coc

Let’s stick with Leyonhjelm’s vet example for a moment before we go back to human medicine.

Leyonhjelm acknowledges how traumatic putting down healthy animals is for practitioners. But he never tells us that the needless killing of a healthy animal is wrong, merely that killing healthy animals is an unpleasant thing to do.

But why do vets find it unpleasant if not because it is morally troubling? After all, in the course of their work, vets carry out other tasks that are far more bloody, intellectually taxing or physically strenuous.

To borrow an argument from Thomas Nagel, Leyonhjelm seems to be getting things around the wrong way: putting down healthy animals isn’t bad because vets find it unpleasant; vets find it unpleasant because it’s a bad thing to do.

Leyonhjelm’s argument never acknowledges that badness. We’re left to infer that Leyonhjelm as a veterinary practitioner sees the wrongness in euthanising healthy pets, but then interprets that perception as a mere preference, not a judgement about moral facts. Some people can’t stand Vegemite; some people don’t like putting down dogs.

And some people don’t like telling families their son won’t pull through, or having to put skulls and spines back together. Bloody whingers.

That, in short, is the argument: if doctors decry the injuries caused by alcohol-related violence, they are merely expressing a preference to not have to deal with the aftermath of such injuries. In other words, the argument depends upon the assumption that the only motives that can be offered for supporting lockout laws are self-interested ones.

The silence of the well-paid

The argumentum ad whingeum was next sighted in Twitter form, thanks to Leyonhjelm’s senior advisor Helen Dale:

Being someone who can’t stop picking fights on Twitter selflessly public-minded, I sought to point out to Dale why the argument is flawed.

The results weren’t exactly a high watermark of Socratic dialogue:

Apart from further assertion that doctors are, in fact, whingeing, we did get at least part of an argument at one point:

That looks like a move away from the argumentum ad whingeum in favour of the familiar libertarian point about autonomy. But “I don’t know why they argue as they do” seems at the very least to violate the principle of charity, which requires us to attribute the strongest possible interpretation of our opponent’s argument to them. The obvious charitable interpretation is ‘because they want to reduce preventable death and injury.’

Dale’s position, like Leyonhjelm’s, seems to imply there is no more charitable interpretation than whingeing available here. When doctors call for lockout laws in order to reduce the harms caused by certain forms of violence, they are either making a self-interested claim to improve their personal working conditions, or their views are unintelligible.

The limits of libertarianism

This is one of the key limitations of libertarianism: it struggles to accommodate forms of value that go beyond individual preference-satisfaction.

That, I’d suggest, is why Leyonhjelm can apparently only make sense of such concerns in the same way he made sense of his own unease at putting healthy pets to sleep: as expressions of personal, subjective discomfort rather than universally valid judgements about right and wrong.

So, their concerns can be dismissed by pointing out that doctors are paid good money to treat the injured, and if they don’t like it they can just get another job.

Their getting another job won’t reduce the injury rate of course, but the whole point is that “death and suffering are intrinsically bad and we are enjoined to reduce them” makes no sense from the libertarian position. Your cracked skull is only my concern if I cracked it, or if I’m being paid to uncrack it, or to arrest the person who did crack it.

None of this, by the way, tells us anything about whether or not lockout laws are a good idea. Apart from anything else they ignore the deeper and harder issue: young men for whom throwing a punch in anger is even thinkable, well before they start drinking. But a moral viewpoint that can’t take reducing death and injury as intrinsically worthwhile isn’t going to get us very far either.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The marriage plebiscite: No ‘time out’ on anti-discrimination laws

It can’t be easy being Lyle Shelton. The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby certainly has a full dance card: holding back the tide against marriage equality, campaigning against anti-discrimination laws, being harried up hill and down dale by Bernard Keane on Twitter, and now, it seems, meeting with the government over the role ACL might play in the forthcoming marriage equality plebiscite

A flawed method

There are any number of reasons why a plebiscite is the wrong way to address this issue. Leaving aside the cost, delay, and potential harm caused by such a plebiscite, basic recognition of full equality should not be in the gift of the majority – hence the ‘liberal’ part of ‘liberal democracy’.

And a non-binding plebiscite followed by a parliamentary vote would force MPs to either vote against their consciences, or to ignore the plebiscite results. On the first, recall Edmund Bourke’s speech to the electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

(Funnily enough, Bourke wasn’t elected to a second term…).

On the second, to all those who think Cory Bernardi and Bridget McKenzie are wrong to say they’d vote against same-sex marriage if the plebiscite returns a ‘yes’: do you also think parliamentarians like Penny Wong, Warren Entsch, or Adam Bandt should be forced to vote against marriage equality if the plebiscite says ‘no’?

Time for good argument

But if it is to be done, then it needs to be done properly, and that means both sides need to step up with compelling moral – that is, philosophical – arguments that are in keeping with the secular and pluralist nature of modern democracy.

I’ve written elsewhere that a structural weakness of the pro-marriage equality campaign is its reliance on a thin liberal/libertarian argument, up against a thick conception of the good being offered by its opponents. Instead of framing the discussion purely in terms of liberty, marriage equality proponents would do well to articulate a fuller picture of what marriage is and why same-sex relationships are substantively marriages already and deserve legal recognition as such.

But the ‘yes’ campaign may not have to work quite that hard, simply because so far their opponents haven’t been able to come up with much that’s persuasive. Consider Shelton’s latest riposte to the oft-posed question, ‘how are heterosexuals affected at all by LGBTQI people getting married?’:

If the definition of marriage is changed, it’s no longer assumed … that I’m married to a woman. So that affects me straight away.

At first, this argumentum ad people-might-think-I-married-a-dudeum might seem both genuinely novel and genuinely puzzling. Even on its own terms it’s manifestly weak: having to slip in a pronoun when referring to your spouse just to convey your heterosexuality hardly seems burdensome enough to warrant denying marriage to same-sex couples.

Hidden assumptions

But in fact it’s merely an extension of an anxiety that, as the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun has noted, is fundamental to much anti-marriage equality sentiment. The impact of homosexual marriages on heterosexual married couples is that their marriages stop being special just because they are heterosexual. It takes away the privilege of being in the ‘right’ sort of marriage, a default, ‘normal,’ and implicitly normative form of relationship. “People might think I married a bloke” is only a problem if you think that being married to someone of the same gender gives you a lesser status than being married to someone of the opposite gender.

It’s that assumption, that same-sex relationships are intrinsically lesser than heterosexual ones, that makes anti-vilification laws such a threat to the prosecution of the ‘no’ case. Because this is an assumption that dare not speak its name, which severely restricts the ‘no’ argument right from the outset. No wonder, then, that folks like the ACL want to call time out on laws and social norms that prevent them from sneaking that assumption back into the debate. In particular, they want a temporary suspension of state anti-discrimination laws, on the grounds that these have a ‘low threshold’ inconsistent with properly airing the arguments against marriage equality.

In fairness to the ACL, legal systems can indeed stifle legitimate debate. Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of ‘SLAPP’ (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), lawsuits entered into purely to silence someone from speaking publicly. In general, there are good reasons to be deeply wary of any laws that criminalise speech. Anti-vilification laws are also prone to seemingly intractable questions of interpretation that may make their operation difficult and controversial.

Shifting the window

Yet such laws also do something of value and importance: they codify, albeit very imperfectly, which forms of speech act amount to repressive and dehumanising exercises of power against the marginalised, and thereby demarcate the limits of civilised debate. To diminish someone on the basis of their racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual identity is, rightly, off the table.

The enforcement of such norms of demarcation is fraught, and laws are a very imperfect instrument for doing so. But the very existence of such laws at least embodies where the limits lie. And for many in the ‘no’ campaign it seems the limits themselves are the problem.

The ACL’s argument about vilification laws is not so much about protecting its members from legal difficulty as about shifting something analogous to the Overton Window, returning us to a time when the equal value of homosexual and heterosexual relationships was still open for public debate. It’s a covert attempt to reject the limits within which the contest of ideas is now framed.

As things stand, the challenge to the ACL and others opposed to marriage equality is to make the ‘no’ case in a way that doesn’t deny the full validity of LGBTQI relationships, and doesn’t rely on revelation-based premises (i.e. theological claims). You can see why they’d want to throw off those constraints, even if only temporarily.

But we should resist any moves to do so. If you can’t make your case without falling afoul of vilification laws, then either there’s something wrong with those laws, or something wrong with your case. My money’s on the latter.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Seducer’s Diary: how a 19th century philosopher anticipated the pick up artist movement

Barely a year after Julian Blanc was denied a visa to Australia, the outcry over Daryush Valizadeh’s planned visit and cancelled meetings has once again drawn media attention on the global “Pick Up Artist” (PUA) movement.

Valizadeh, aka “Roosh V.” is one of the more visible PUA figures, and one of the most overtly sexist. He’s written a series of books on how to sleep with women in various countries such as Brazil, (“Poor favela chicks are very easy, but quality is a serious problem”) but advises his readers to avoid Denmark as Nordic social democracy has made Danish women too independent. He cites Arthur Schopenhauer to argue that women are less rational than men and so should be controlled by them. He insists “no” usually doesn’t mean no, and anyway women should understand that men just can’t stop themselves (so much for all that rational decision making…).

And here’s the kicker: he has proposed legalising rape on private property. If Valizadeh meant that to be some sort of tongue-in-cheek Swiftian parody, it’s not a particularly good one, and given the context I’m disinclined to give him the benefit of Poe’s Law.

Other PUAs might insist they don’t go quite that far. But all belong to a movement that presents itself as ‘empowering’ men by giving them tools and techniques (often plainly abusive ones) to manipulate women into bed. It reduces women to sites for the agency of men, mere mechanisms for producing sex and comfort.

On one level the PUA pathology is easy enough to diagnose: it’s just misogyny organised into a self-reinforcing club. It is men who have lost undeserved power – in particular, access to and control of women’s bodies – interpreting this loss as subjection.

PUAs and their “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRA) brethren will, of course, vociferously reject that claim. To do so, they’ll make various appeals: to history, to biological essentialism, to weirdly cherry-picked factoids (“women can’t really be oppressed because men die in workplace accidents more!”). All of it, however, amounts to little more than obvious figleaves for a desire to reclaim power over women.

The Sorrows Of Roosh V

What’s less obvious is that Valizadeh’s own story exposes something crucial: even on its own terms, the PUA approach is a failure. “The Game” (no, not the Game you just lost, the other one) is played exclusively by people who, eventually, lose.

As the blogger David Futrelle noted, Valizadeh’s way of life had already led him into a sort of existential crisis more than a year ago:

Unless I’m looking at an easy one-night stand opportunity, it’s illogical for me based on my experience to go on a date with a girl for any other reason than to enter some type of relationship with her, something that I don’t necessarily want. Otherwise it’s a waste of time that provides me with nothing more than entertainment. Even a one-night stand has lost its luster since the quality will be modest at best and condom use will be usually required, decreasing the overall sexual pleasure. It’s clear to me now that I don’t want what I used to want (as much), but at the same time I don’t care for something deeper. I’m afraid I may have already extracted the most satisfying rewards women could provide me in life, and that this particular oil well in running dry.

At 36, Valizadeh is still chasing sexual conquests while simultaneously tiring of them. His entire conception of the good life is structured around attaining a particular form of pleasure, while simultaneously avoiding commitments and their attendant loss of autonomy and risk of boredom.

What’s interesting about Valizadeh’s musings here, and the project they’re attached to, is how much they echo those of a fictional pick-up artist from a philosophical work written one hundred and fifty years ago.

The Jaded Aesthete

In 1843, a very strange book appeared in Reitzel’s bookshop in Copenhagen, under the enigmatic title Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.

Title page of ‘Either/Or’ by Søren Kierkegaard, 1843
Wikipedia

Not unusually for the era, it was published under a pseudonym. The fictional editor of the book, “Victor Eremita,” describes finding the papers that make up the book in a secret compartment of a second-hand desk. These papers are supposedly written by two different men: a jaded young aesthete, who Eremita simply calls “A”, and his older friend, a married judge named Vilhelm.

The name of the real author – Søren Kierkegaard – doesn’t appear. That’s not so as to hide authorship, however, but because the whole point of the book is to confront the reader directly with two different “spheres” of existence, two different ways of life, and to make them choose between them.

The “aesthetic” sphere, represented by “A”, is essentially about pursuing pleasure and avoiding boredom. “A” recommends an approach to life modelled on crop rotation: see only part of a play, read only part of a book, learn to distract yourself with trivia, move from one fleeting moment of pleasure to the next before it has time to become boring.

But boredom, it turns out, always catches you in the end. “A” finds he has to put enormous effort into avoiding entanglement and commitment, to diminishing returns. Compare Valizadeh’s quote above to Kierkegaard’s aesthete:

I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding – the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking – it is too tiring; I don’t feel like lying down, for either I have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything.

Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.

The Seducer’s Diary

The aesthetic half of Either/Or culminates in a long series of diary entries attributed to a certain Johannes, detailing his drawn-out seduction of a young girl, Cordelia. “The Seducer’s Diary” as it’s known, contains no sex. Instead, Johannes explains in painstaking detail how he is manipulating Cordelia towards his predetermined end. He is at once both key actor in and passive observer of her seduction, obsessively analysing every minute detail.

Kierkegaard seems to have written “The Seducer’s Diary” partly as a means of presenting himself as the titular cad, in an effort to save the reputation of his former fiancé Regine Olsen after he’d broken off their engagement. But Johannes’ type is recognisable enough from the modern PUA movement: solipsistically self-involved, hyper-reflective, relentlessly objectifying, obsessively classifying, cataloguing and critiquing with a remorseless zeal.

Yet Johannes too is living in a form of despair. Despite his commitment to the 19th century Nordic version of ‘The Game,’ his techniques actually remove him from the present moment rather than allowing him to enjoy it. And when his conquest is complete, he must immediately move on lest boredom catch up with him:

But now it is finished, and I never want to see her again. When a girl has given away everything, she is weak, she has lost everything… Now all resistance is impossible, and to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit.

The last thing Johannes’ system of seduction will yield is genuine contact with another human being, let alone anything we might think of as happiness. The hunter is in fact the doomed quarry.

Ethical Choice

The second half of Either/Or is made up of Judge Vilhelm imploring his young friend to choose a life of ethical commitment, such as marriage. Yet he doesn’t tell ‘A’ to make this choice because it’s the ethically right thing to do. Rather he is begging A to choose to see the world in ethical terms at all:

My either/or does not in the first instance denote the choice between good and evil; it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil or excludes them. Here the question is under what determinants one would contemplate the whole of existence and would himself live.

Simply pointing out to an aesthete that what they’re doing is immoral will cut no ice until the aesthete has chosen to see the world through an ethical lens. And the motivation to do so is precisely that a life governed entirely by pleasure has failed.

To this you might reply that PUAs and MRAs already do trade in ostensibly ethical terms, such as ‘rights’ (and the infamous “ethics in games journalism”). But the conception of ‘rights’ being put forward here is wholly self-serving, a set of principles advanced solely to protect their own interests rather than for the sake of the principles themselves. It’s selfishness masquerading as justice.

So while ideally PUAs would simply see the moral repugnance of what they’re doing and stop, it may be that, as a last resort, one way to get traction with them is pointing out that a life-project structured around serial seduction fails even on its own terms.

In other words, even if you could somehow disentangle it from its misogynistic focus of conquest and exploitation and its perpetuation and glorification of rape culture, the PUA mode of existence is a dead end. So even its adherents have self-interested reasons to abandon it, and with it, its selfish worldview.

What might replace the PUA mindset? Perhaps an openness to the encounter with the other person as they are, rather than one that tries to reduce women to instruments to be manipulated. For the Blancs and Valizadehs of this world, minimally decent personhood would be a good start.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Consolations of Philosophy: An Open Letter To Jamie Briggs

Dear Mr Briggs,

We haven’t met. But I’ve been following your ministerial career with some interest, since just before the last election.

As you’ll recall you were the then-opposition’s spokesperson on “government waste,” a role that involved attending a surprising amount of sport. And in that capacity, you launched a broadside against what you saw as:

those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the Government was thinking.

You gave four examples of ARC funded “projects that do little, if anything, to advance Australians [sic] research needs.” As I discussed on this site at the time, two of those four were projects in my field, philosophy.

Of course, ARC funding is insanely competitive, so those projects were more or less by definition world class contributions to the discipline. Yet you chose to ridicule them – and, by extension, the life’s work of people like me – all the same.

Can you believe that was only two years ago? My, what a roller coaster it’s been for you: winning the election, becoming Assistant Minister (not, as you insisted to Raphael Epstein that time, a ‘junior minister’ even though that’s a common and well-understood term) for Infrastructure and Regional Development, busting a leg tackling the newly deposed PM, being made Minister for Cities and the Built Environment.

As your new boss might have said, surely there was never a more exciting time to be Jamie Briggs.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, you had to resign after inappropriate behaviour towards a public servant in a bar in Hong Kong.

So clearly you’ve been busy, and I doubt you’ve had much time to revisit the question of what does and doesn’t count as a valid area of research.

But what I’d urge you to do, now that you’re back to constituency business and maybe have a little time on your hands, is to find out a bit more about what you knocked back then. Perhaps, in your enthusiasm to win the election, you were a bit too hasty. Perhaps philosophy was the answer all along.

There’s certainly precedent for those in your profession. Plato, after all, insisted the rulers of the ideal state should be trained philosophers. The likes of Cicero, Seneca, and the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius all managed to meld the life of the mind and the affairs of state, to the benefit of both. As a Liberal, you’ll surely appreciate the Harm Principle – the cornerstone of modern liberalism – formulated by J.S. Mill, who served one term as an MP.

But as you can confirm, politics is also brutal and full of setbacks. Philosophy can help there, too.

The philosopher Boethius was a powerful official under the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, until he was accused of treason. While awaiting execution, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy (523), one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages. As my Cogito colleague Laura D’Olimpio has described, Boethius imagines being visited by a personification of philosophy, who explains that love of wisdom is the only true balm for the sufferings of his soul.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor (Museo del Prado).
Luis García/flickr

The Stoics, too, might offer you some resources for overcoming your recent loss of rank. But perhaps that won’t be enough, and you’ll find you can’t shake it off that easily (as another noted philosopher urges). Politics is a game built for the ambitious, and there’s little so painful as frustrated ambition. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in the position William James describes,

the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts. He is to his own regard as if he were not, indeed he is not.

Fifty years earlier, Kierkegaard too had diagnosed this particular form of despair:

Thus when the ambitious man, whose slogan was ‘Either Caesar or nothing’, does not become Caesar, he is in despair over it. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he is not in despair over the fact that he did not become Caesar, but he is in despair over himself for the fact that he did not become Caesar.

That’s a bad place to be. We’ve already seen what how corrosive that form of despair can be with one ousted PM and it looks ominously like we might be seeing it with another.

If philosophy can help you avoid that fate, surely it’s worth taking a second look?

Best regards,

Patrick

PS: Do let me know if I can offer any reading suggestions. Always happy to help.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Christmas Already? ‘Tis The Season to Think About Time

Well, it’s that time of year again – and there it is; just four words into an article on Christmas I’ve used the word ‘time.’ Among the hodge-podge of rituals and holidays that survive in the post-Christian West, Christmas might just be the one that tells us the most about how humans relate to and experience temporality.

Christmas, narrative, and repetition

That might sound like a strange claim. After all, we have other yearly rituals that seem to be much more explicitly concerned with time. Birthdays are staging posts on our journey from childhood to youth to middle age to dotage. (The Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul wrote that where once we sang the Latin Mass over the born, the living, the dying, and the dead to mark their passage through this vale of tears, now we make do with ‘Happy Birthday’).

New Years Eve is a time when we tend to take stock of a year that’s gone and make resolutions for the year to come. The resolutions don’t usually stick, admittedly, but that’s not really the point. What matters is the sense of narrative coherence – of what Ricoeur, drawing on Aristotle, calls our ‘emplotment’ – that we give to the time of our lives through such resolutions.

Christmas, by contrast, isn’t cumulative in the way that birthdays and anniversaries are. We do have first Christmases with babies, last Christmases with the gravely ill, and first Christmases without the departed; but otherwise Christmas doesn’t seem to mark passage and development in the same way. You might be celebrating, say, your 42nd birthday next year, but I doubt you’re thinking of this as your 41st Christmas.

Even in stories where some sort of personal conversion happens at Christmas, the festival is more stage setting than essential plot point. You can imagine Scrooge’s encounter with ghosts, or an epiphany that makes the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes, happening at any time of the year without it throwing the narrative logic of the story out too much.

Each individual Christmas is, in a sense, self-contained. Christmas is connected to the past via traditions, but taking part in these traditions doesn’t focus on their past but on their present. They’re what Kierkegaard calls a ‘repetition’ in his somewhat specialised sense: whereas recollection is ‘repeating backwards’, repetition is ‘repeating forwards.’ We don’t merely relive past Christmases; we do Christmas anew each year.

Earlier each year?

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying it feels like the repetition keeps accelerating. I don’t just mean that shops put their Christmas (and Easter) paraphernalia out earlier each year, though I’m more than happy to complain about that.

Rather it seems like time itself is getting faster and faster.

There’s an interesting disagreement in mid-20th century phenomenology about how we relate to the future. Heidegger – who as my colleague Matt Sharpe explains is deeply controversial at the moment – viewed time as constituted by ekstasis, being-outside-of-ourselves by projecting into the past and the future. Levinas, in his earlier work, replied that while we do project in these ways (we remember, make plans etc.) ultimately the future comes to us from the outside, not the other way around.

In that respect, and to be more than a little glib, maybe kids are more Heideggerian about Christmas and adults are more Levinasian. Kids long for what for adults seems to come at them earlier and earlier every year. (Though even here there’s an interesting microcosm of time: unlike Christmases themselves, the windows of an advent calendar aren’t merely punctual and repetitive, but build up to that Boss-level window you get to open on the 24th).

Giant advent calendar, Fitzroy, 2011
Eag383/Wikimedia Commons

“I can’t wait until Christmas!” at some point gives way to a vaguely alarmed “Can you believe it’s almost Christmas already?”

Of course, Christmas always comes around at exactly the same interval, a couple of days after every second solstice. (Time, says Heidegger, first appears in the sky). As some analytic philosophers like to say, and others like to mock as a meaningless statement, time flows at the constant rate of one second per second. Yet most of us report that the time between Christmases seems to get shorter and shorter, as if time was speeding up. Christmas is one of those events that exposes the gap between ‘chronological time’ and ‘phenomenological time’ as Ricoeur puts it; between the time of clocks and calendars, and the time that flies when you’re having fun and drags when you’re bored.

Economic and higher time

And like boredom, once Christmas does arrive it discloses something else: that for all our pretensions to ‘time management,’ time ultimately escapes our control.

We spend most of our lives embedded in ‘economic’ time, carving it up into days and hours as units of work and expenditure; we ‘spend’ time, ‘waste’ time, and even ‘invest’ time and energy. Once we did this according to the sun and the seasons; with the coming of the factory and the railway, with their schedules and timetables, time became ever more fine-grained, regulated, and economically structured.

But Christmas takes as long as it takes, so to speak. Just as the experience of boredom discloses that you can’t control the flow of time, so too does Christmas. It suspends ‘regular’ time, such that doing ‘regular’ things on Christmas Day can seem alien and strange.

In his magisterial tome A Secular Age, Charles Taylor charts the process of secularisation over the last five centuries, the shift from near-universal and largely untroubled faith to the predominance of atheism in some parts of the West today. One of the main shifts he discusses is the homogenization of time. On one popular telling, the old distinction between ‘profane time’ and ‘higher time’ (eternity, the time of sacred history etc.) has collapsed. From the viewpoint of modernity, Walter Benjamin claims, everything takes place in “homogenous, empty time,” with any one point in time fundamentally no different to any other.

Yet in fact, we still have ‘kairotic’ moments, where profane and higher time intersect and secular, economic time is suspended or transfigured. Some Christian traditionalists rail against an imaginary “war against Christmas” and decry the Godless, commercialised character of the season today. Yet this misses the point that even after the retreat of religious belief across the West, Christmas remains a little island of sacralised time, partially removed (at least for the fortunate) from economic, profane temporality.

Those of us who celebrate Christmas without religious belief then move to fill in that sacralised temporal space with different meanings – time with family, rest and peace, giving joy to children – meanings which reach for a secularised conception of the sacred adequate to this incursion of higher time.

Of course, this is all rather culturally and economically specific. A great many people do work at Christmas, without even the illusion of escaping economic time. For many it is a time of loneliness and pain. For many others Christmas is just another day, of no particular significance. Perhaps much of what I’ve said can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to Hanukkah, Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, and other festivals. But generalisations necessarily exclude, so it’s important to be clear when our generalisations obscure and erase the experiences of others.

So from me to you and yours: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and as my grandmother once told me, remember that it’s always later than you think…

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity is out!

oupcoverI’m absolutely delighted to say that The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity has now been released in Europe. It should be available in the US and via Amazon in the next couple of months.

The Naked Self is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on for the last eight years.  From the dust jacket:

Across his relatively short and eccentric authorial career, Søren Kierkegaard develops a unique, and provocative, account of what it is to become, to be, and to lose a self, backed up by a rich phenomenology of self-experience. Yet Kierkegaard has been almost totally absent from the burgeoning analytic philosophical literature on self-constitution and personal identity. How, then, does Kierkegaard’s work appear when viewed in light of current debates about self and identity—and what does Kierkegaard have to teach philosophers grappling with these problems today?

The Naked Self explores Kierkegaard’s understanding of selfhood by situating his work in relation to central problems in contemporary philosophy of personal identity: the role of memory in selfhood, the relationship between the notional and actual subjects of memory and anticipation, the phenomenology of diachronic self-experience, affective alienation from our past and future, psychological continuity, practical and narrative approaches to identity, and the intelligibility of posthumous survival. By bringing his thought into dialogue with major living and recent philosophers of identity (such as Derek Parfit, Galen Strawson, Bernard Williams, J. David Velleman, Marya Schechtman, Mark Johnston, and others), Stokes reveals Kierkegaard as a philosopher with a significant—if challenging—contribution to make to philosophy of self and identity.

 

A Philosophical Dialogue (That May Or May Not Have Something To Do With Recent Events)

This piece originally appeared on The Conversation’s Cogito blog.

goodsamaritanThe UNSUBTLEBERG family – MOTHER, FATHER, BROTHER and SISTER – are driving along a lonely country road, on their way to camping holiday.

MOTHER: Wait, what’s that?! Stop the car!

[They screech to a halt]

FATHER: Wow, that’s quite a crash! That car’s completely wrecked!

BROTHER: Hey, there’s the driver! Over there, by the side of the road!

SISTER: I think he’s still alive! Look, he’s moving!

MOTHER: [unbuckling her belt] Ok, someone grab the blankets and medical kit out of the boot, there’s heaps of bandages in there, and I’ll –

FATHER: Whoa, just a second there, honey. What – what are you doing?

MOTHER: What do you mean, ‘what am I doing?’ That person needs help! We have to help!

FATHER: Well, sure, I agree this is a terrible situation. But it’s not our fault.

MOTHER: What?

FATHER: It’s not our fault. We didn’t cause this accident, and so while it’s good that we feel sympathy here, we’re not obliged to stop and help. And, you know, we have a camping holiday to get to. Though I must say, it’s very much to our credit that we feel so bad for this poor sap. Really speaks to what great people we are that we feel so dreadful.

MOTHER: It may not be our fault – though who knows, maybe we’re all complicit in the condition of country highways – but this person needs help!

FATHER: Yes, but what matters here is that we do what’s just. And there’s no injustice in our driving past: we’re not breaking a promise, or stealing something that’s not ours, or injuring the driver ourselves, or anything like that. So, it’s ok to just drive on.

MOTHER: You don’t think it’s unjust that someone’s dying in a ditch while we’re sitting in a nice warm Audi arguing about what’s just?

FATHER: Unjust? No. Terrible? Sure. But no-one has wronged anybody here, so it’s nobody’s responsibility to do anything. Why should I fix this? I didn’t make the world. Besides, we worked hard for this Audi.

MOTHER: We bought this Audi with the money you inherited from your aunt, and you ‘work hard’ at a job you only got because your parents could afford to send you to private school where you met your future boss.

FATHER: Exactly. We’ve earned it.

MOTHER: Look, I’m not talking about obligations in that narrow sense. Circumstance has placed a suffering person into our hands, and that means we’re responsible for what happens to them, even if it’s not our fault. Sucks, but there it is. Now, will somebody please grab the first aid kit from the –

BROTHER: No way, Mum. I mean, yeah, Dad’s right that it’s sad this has happened and all, and it would be very nice of us to help, I agree. But I just think we should look after our own first.

MOTHER: What the actual f-

BROTHER: No, seriously, is that person’s name “Unsubtleberg”? Because we only have so many resources here in this car and we should use them to look after people named Unsubtleberg first.

MOTHER: Why?

BROTHER: Well, we’re the Unsubtlebergs. We have the same surname. That means we have special obligations to each other. We’re obliged to put the interests of our family members first, ahead of strangers.

MOTHER: Our ‘interest’ here being that we don’t lose an hour or two out of our camping holiday? You really think the random chance that made you an Unsubtleberg gives you the right to ignore a guy bleeding out not ten feet away from where you sit?

BROTHER: Of course I do. Also I didn’t want to say anything, but I got a papercut a few minutes ago while thumbing through this copy of Clumsy Allegory Enthusiast magazine. Don’t you think we as a family should be tending to our own wounds first before we start helping others?

SISTER: Besides, we’re four people in a mid-sized sedan. What do you want us to do: squish up? That would be less comfortable.

FATHER: And they might bleed all over the upholstery!

BROTHER: Hey look, there’s someone on a bicycle out there! The rider has gone over to the injured person. That means they got there first, so they should take the injured driver to hospital, not us.

MOTHER: On a bicycle? You can’t dink someone to hospital from the middle of nowhere. We’re in a car, so it’s up to us to help.

BROTHER: Why? Just because they need help doesn’t mean they have the right to sit in a nice vehicle. If they’re really injured, being slung over the bars of a ten-speed should be good enough for them, right? Otherwise they’re not even a patient, they’re a hitchhiker.

SISTER: Also, if we stop to help, aren’t we just encouraging accidents? If we rescue people from accidents like this, more and more people will start driving on country roads.

BROTHER: The only thing that really matters here is that we Stop The Traffic.

FATHER: [Opens window, calls to cyclist] Hey buddy, how’s the patient looking?

CYCLIST: I’m… I’m afraid they’re gone. Just a moment ago. I didn’t have any bandages or anything, there was just nothing I could do…

SISTER: Wow. Look at that poor body, lying there like that. Heartbreaking.

BROTHER: I’ll have that image seared into my brain forever.

FATHER: Gosh, really makes you think, doesn’t it?

BROTHER: Yep. Really makes you think.

[They drive on]

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bordering on contempt: Operation Fortitude and the right to exclude

This piece originally appeared on The Conversation’s Cogito blog.

passportOne detail you might have missed in the recent uproar over the Australian Border Force’s involvement in “Operation Fortitude” was the ABF’s understanding of what a border is:

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating national states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.

That language set ABF up for obvious lines of parody (“the border is just a state of mind, maaan…”) and the inevitable “It’s the vibe of the thing” memes. It all sounded a bit too, well, philosophical for a government department, let alone a newly-uniformed and armed organisation.

It’s certainly an unfamiliar thing when governments start to sound like philosophers, though there is precedent. In the middle of last decade, for instance, the Israeli Defence Force experimented with strategies based on Critical Theory and twentieth century French philosophy, particularly the work of Deleuze. It wasn’t a success, reportedly because “Not every officer in the IDF had the time or the inclination to study postmodern French philosophy.”

Imaginary lines and real lives

But waxing philosophical about borders is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, for borders, in the literal sense, are inherently abstract. They are the legal and cartographic expression of historical, cultural, and political contingencies. Not surprisingly, imposing these abstractions on the physical world sometimes leads to absurdity.

For instance, as a result of a complex set of Medieval treaties and land purchases, the Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau contains a patchwork of Belgian enclaves (Baarle-Hertog), some of which themselves contain parcels of Dutch territory, nested like Russian dolls. There are cafes that straddle the border; at one time, when Dutch law imposed early closing time on restaurants, patrons sitting in the Netherlands would simply get up and move to a table on the Belgian side of the room.

Elsewhere, an interminable dispute between Egypt and Sudan over which of two century-old borders is the right one means that Bir Tawil, an uninhabited 2,060 km2 patch of desert, is unclaimed by any nation: Egypt insists it’s part of Sudan, and Sudan insists it’s part of Egypt.

And for every such piece of quaint geopolitical trivia, there are uncountable tragedies connected with or occasioned by borders: tragedies of separation, of deprivation, of conflict, of death. We should be thinking hard about borders. They may be abstractions but their impact is desperately real.

Sovereignty and control

In December of 2014, the newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo, gave a speech on “Sovereignty in an Age of Interdependency” in which he attempted to do just that sort of thinking. It’s a significant speech with far-reaching implications, one that both puts his department’s conceptualisation of borders into context, and unwittingly exposes the very conceptual problems at the heart of how we think about migration.

Pezzullo declared that while the mission of DIBP’s predecessor institutions going back to 1945 had been one of nation-building, now it was one of negotiating the tension between the openness required by globalization and the post-Westphalian state’s “ancient coding as a vehicle for territoriality and exclusion”:

I see them [borders] as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty.

In the simplest of terms, modern states demand the right to determine how they will live within their own boundaries, but also seek the benefits of open movement of goods and people and of a rule-governed international order. The tension here is that we claim the right to make rules for ourselves while living in a broader environment that requires us to subject ourselves to external rules if we are gain certain benefits.

In that context, ABF’s “complex continuum” model of the border makes more sense. But it also draws our attention to what that border really amounts to.

Our gift (not) to give?

The language of ‘border protection’ is useful for governments, as it conjures
up images of patrolling a physical frontier, of keeping a walled populace safe from a hostile world without. That we’re now being told this wall is in fact a “continuum” that exists all the way to Flinders Street (even if Fortitude is what the ABF regards as a “behind the border” operation) gives the lie to this imagery. Entitlements to remain in a country aren’t created by borders, but the other way around: borders exist because of such entitlements. They are functions of a right that states claim for themselves, a right that Pezzullo sums up as being “able to determine who and what has the right, or gift, of entry or exit, and under what conditions.”

As I’ve argued here before, part of what makes the problem of asylum seekers so disturbing for us in the developed world is that these people’s very existence calls into question our assumed entitlement to live where we do, as we do. What moral rights does the mere accident of birth bestow upon us? Why should I be rich and safe and the other debased and imperilled? How do we derive rights of territorial exclusion from such sheer contingency?

The more fundamental question raised by this concept of the border is not how to balance sovereignty against the demands of global commerce; the question is what entitles us to make – or withhold – a gift of something we haven’t ourselves earned.

Community and contingency

You might reply that rights of abode derive from certain forms of connectedness to the community. The taunt of “I grew here, you flew here” is meant to convey that the speaker has the relevant kind of connections, and so an entitlement to be here, while the ‘newcomer’ does not. But simply being born here doesn’t automatically mean you’re connected to the community, while as the current case of Mojgan Shamsalipoor attests, connection to the community is no protection against the threat of deportation either.

Even if we could establish such a right on the basis of concrete connections, we’d still be left with the more fundamental challenge of whether we have a right to insist on ‘sovereignty’ ahead of our duty of concern for the other. In his speech, Pezzullo speaks of border protection as giving governments the “space” to be “compassionate” towards asylum seekers – phrasing that suggests compassion is somehow one policy option among others rather than a standing moral demand.

He points out that the sheer scale of the global refugee population means no one nation or even group of nations can take on the whole burden themselves. Yet nations already do take on that burden – asylum seekers physically have to be somewhere, after all – so what this really means is that developed nations cannot comfortably take on such burdens. But why simply assume we have a right to be comfortable? What grounds such a right? And just what flows from it?

Confronting our assumptions

If our current policy settings are to be believed, almost anything is licensed by our ‘right’ of exclusion, up to and including offshore detention in conditions so horrific it is clearly meant to be a cruel deterrent to anyone who would dare challenge us, not a bureaucratic mechanism for the orderly flow of people across borders.

The spectre of uniformed quasi-police checking papers in the middle of Melbourne rightly disturbed enough of us that it caused an immediate backlash. And while Australia continues to pull its hair out over relatively tiny numbers of “irregular” arrivals, Europe continues to experience appalling tragedies as it struggles to deal with incoming refugees and migrants.

Both these events confront us with what – if anything – underpins our claimed right of exclusion, even in the face of suffering and death. We should indeed be thinking about borders. We just might not like where that thinking takes us.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On ‘nanny states’ and race, Leyonhjelm exposes the moral thinness of libertarianism

This piece originally appeared on The Conversation’s Cogito blog.

SENATE FORUM PRESS CLUBWhatever you think of his views, or of how he came to sit in the Senate, it’s hard to deny that David Leyonhjelm is the real deal: a conviction politician whose positions are governed by principle, not populism.

The problem for his supporters is that Leyonhjelm is exposing the disturbing moral thinness of the libertarian principles he espouses.

In the wake of a parliamentary committee recommending a referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, Leyonhjelm repeated the claim that there’s doubt in anthropological circles that the Aboriginal nations were the first inhabitants of the Australian continent.

That claim struck many as decidedly odd. However, this empirical claim is just one component of a larger position that Leyonhjelm outlined in a speech in March. Appeals to anthropological data and a curious concern not to exclude those who don’t respect Aboriginal culture are just ornaments to his main objection. That comes near the end of his speech, and is both perfectly consistent with his ideological commitments, and perfectly emblematic of what’s wrong with libertarianism:

Every human being in Australia is a person, equal before the law. Giving legal recognition to characteristics held by certain persons – particularly when those characteristics are inherent, like ancestry – represents a perverse sort of racism. Although it appears positive, it still singles some people out on the basis of race.

This is a familiar argument: if we’re all equal, and if it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, then it’s just as wrong to discriminate positively as negatively.

The problem with talking about equality at this level of abstraction is that it makes the reality of material privilege invisible. And the bigger problem is that for libertarians, and a great many classical liberals, that’s not actually a problem at all.

The skinless enlightenment man

Treasurer Joe Hockey insists the state promises “equality of opportunity” but not “equality of outcome”. But “equality of opportunity” here is understood as mostly formal. It’s the equality Anatole France spoke of:

The majestic equality of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.

But if you can strip human beings back to a self so abstract that purely formal equality seems compelling, you can convince yourself that practical disadvantage doesn’t matter. Leyonhjelm’s speech name-checked the Enlightenment, and this is fitting. What emerges from the Enlightenment and its early modern antecedents is, as the philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, a “buffered” self, an autonomous agent impervious to external forces.

The men of the Enlightenment – figures like Locke, Hume, Kant, Jefferson and Rousseau – laid out the value of liberty and the essential dignity of humans spectacularly well, but the humans they were describing looked an awful lot like themselves. Being white, male, heterosexual, well-educated and materially comfortable – qualifications which allow you to pass through the world without the kinds of friction that others encounter – makes it much easier to conceive of yourself as an objective centre of disembodied reason and freedom.

Abstract reason doesn’t go hungry. Abstract reason has no skin; it is not born into a body situated into a world of meanings it cannot control.

Nor does it have a history. In speaking of everyone “celebrating ancestry”, Leyonhjelm quite explicitly collapses the experiences of an Indigenous Australian, an asylum seeker, and an Anglo-Celt into one very big but very shallow bucket. Racial identity is reduced to “ancestry” and shunted back into a past that’s available for voluntary “celebration” but exerts no real force on the present.

The “buffered self” isn’t buffeted, let alone constrained or determined, by the winds of history. It stands above history just as it stands above embodiment.

And to suggest otherwise? To suggest that history and its sequelae must be acknowledged? Why, that would be singling people out on the basis of their race. That’s racist.

Saving us from ourselves

In some ways this is all in keeping with libertarianism’s refusal to see anything but individual liberty as having decisive moral weight. Freedom, just so we’re clear, is desperately important. It’s one of the main features of the moral landscape that politics must be responsive to. But a myopic focus on individual liberty, linked to a thin conception of persons that sees human dignity simply as the free exercise of autonomy, obscures other vital features of that landscape.

Leyonhjelm has apparently won support for a parliamentary inquiry into the “Nanny State”. Once again, there is commendable philosophical clarity and consistency in his position:

The issue here is, to what extent is the government entitled to legislate – and we’re not talking about just giving advice – but to legislate, to protect you from your own bad choices. Bicycle helmets are a very good example of that: nobody is hurt if you fall off. If you don’t wear a bicycle helmet, your head’s not going to crack into somebody else and damage them.

This is the classic Liberal Harm Principle: no-one is entitled to interfere with your personal behaviour so long as it doesn’t impact on anyone else. Hence if you want to smoke, or ride a bike without a helmet, this is an essentially “personal” matter that no-one else should interfere with.

Leyonhjelm hit back against criticism for apparently being more concerned about the imaginary health effects of wind turbines than the very real health effects of tobacco. Such criticism misses the point: libertarians don’t care what you do to yourself, just to other people. Smoke ‘em if you got ’em.

I’ve noted before that even classical liberals like Mill drew the line at suicide – as this destroys the very freedom that the Harm Principle is meant to respect – though some libertarians such as the late Robert Nozick were prepared to countenance a wider right of self-disposal.

But consider whether you have a right to wrestle a would-be suicide down from a window ledge or bridge. To conclude that this would be an unfair interference in their personal autonomy involves a certain blindness, a whittling of the person down to the point where their only remaining value is rational autonomy. The independent, buffered Enlightenment subject: a pure atomistic locus of self-directed freedom, including the freedom to jump.

What is bled out of that picture is the essential interconnection of persons, grounded in our intersubjective constitution. When John Donne famously declared “no man is an island entire of itself”, he knew exactly what that implied:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

No-one “merely” harms themselves, but inevitably harms those around them in doing so. My life is not entirely my own – nor is its value reducible to my autonomy.

Thick value and power-blindness

People – real, concrete, loving, feeling, people – matter in deep, distinctive ways, ways that strain the resources of our moral language. And, accordingly, their deaths – which rob the world of something inherently precious – also matter, at least enough for us to sometimes try and save people from their own objectively bad choices. But that sort of thick moral value is lost in the remorseless thinning-down of libertarian calculation.

Even Leyonhjelm’s support of same-sex marriage, for instance, doesn’t seem to be grounded in a view that long-term same-sex relationships are intrinsically good things that deserve access to the same sort of recognition as heterosexual ones, so much as a pervasive dislike of governments saying “no” to people.

Also, when you denude the world of moral pith by abstracting people down into their Enlightenment ghosts in this way, you end up peeling away the level on which real power operates. That makes it easier to pretend we’re now living in some sort of post-racial utopia in which any attempt to redress ongoing power imbalances becomes “reverse racism”.

Equality, it seems, is achieved simply by refusing to acknowledge that inequality remains to be overcome, and by refusing to see the privilege of one’s own position.


You know who talks about race? Racists.

Think of Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson complaining that that the law – and not just social sanction – prohibits racially loaded terms being used by some people but not others. This misses the point that the words in question aren’t just words used to denigrate minorities: they’re words used by white people to denigrate others.

Wilson doesn’t magically stop being white when he speaks, and he doesn’t get to sidestep the historical meanings of a white man using those words. None of us gets to be the pure monad of ahistorical, acultural reason the Enlightenment imagined us to be.

But this charge of “reverse racism” is deeply attractive from a certain perspective. It’s a way of pretending you can talk about racism, or sexism, or homophobia, without talking about power. That’s comforting for those who sense true equality would mean that they – we – might have to give up some of that power.


Patrick will be on hand for an author Q&A between 3PM and 4PM AEST on Tuesday, June 30. Post your questions in the comments section below.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated after publication to clarify Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson’s comments.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Conspiracy Theories Aren’t Harmless Fun

This piece originally appeared on The Conversation’s Cogito blog

WTC7We’ve just seen another mass shooting in the US. This time it was a church, and race hate was the cause. Other times it’s a school, or a cinema, or a university, or a shopping mall.

By now, the script is sickeningly familiar: the numbing details of horror, followed by the bewildered outrage, the backlash that attempts to delimit and isolate and resist any wider analysis, and finally the inevitable failure to act.

But in the age of the internet there’s an extra, ghoulish twist.

Within days, and increasingly, within mere hours and minutes, a tragic event is being filtered through a worldview that insists these events are not what they seem. Conspiracy theorists leap on the tragedy as yet more evidence of dark forces manipulating the world for their own nefarious ends. The kids killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT? They never existed. Their grieving families? “Crisis actors.” This is all Obama, you see, and his one-world-government comrades staging ‘false flag’ attacks to justify disarming the citizenry. He’s coming for your guns.

And yes, this process has already started around Charleston. Lunar right media identity Alex Jones’ Infowars immediately questioned if the shooting was a “false flag.” Others came out of the woodwork to insist the shooter’s manifesto was a fraud, and that the “shooter” was in fact a 33 year old Marine and former child star of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doogie Howser MD.

Did you laugh just then? It’s understandable if you did. Most conspiracy theories are, unless you’re the one pushing them, pretty absurdly funny. Conspiracy theorists are always good for a chuckle.

Until they aren’t.

In his critical introduction to conspiracy theories, the sociologist Jovan Byford notes that the academic study of conspiracy theories went through a phase where scholars treated these theories as intriguing pop-culture artefacts that were essentially harmless. In the X-Files-inflected 90s, decades out from the horrific anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasties of Nesta Webster and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was easy to treat conspiracy theory as an exercise of playful postmodern irony. No-one gets hurt, right?

Tell that to Gene Rosen, who helped kids who had fled the shooting at Newtown only to be hounded with abusive phone messages from people accusing him of being a government stooge. Tell that to the families of Grace McDonnell and Chase Kowalski, two seven year olds killed at Newtown, whose parents had to endure a phone call from the man who stole the memorial to their children telling them their children never existed.

But the harmfulness of conspiracy theory arguably goes much deeper than this. It’s not just that conspiracy belief sometimes causes people to do terrible things. It’s that attachment to the conspiracy worldview violates important norms of trust and forbearance that are central to how we relate to each other and the wider world.

There’s remarkably little philosophical work done on conspiracy theory, though intriguingly most of what has been done has been done by Australians and New Zealanders such as David Coady, Charles Pigden, Steve Clarke, and recently Matthew Dentith (I haven’t yet had a chance to get hold of Dentith’s new book on the philosophy of conspiracy theory but it looks interesting). Most of what has been done has concentrated on issues of rationality and epistemology: is it rational to believe in conspiracy theories?

Interestingly, the answer is: more rational than we might think. After all, conspiracy theories manage to explain all the loose ends (“errant data”) that the ‘official’ story doesn’t. Viewed purely as a form of inference to best explanation, conspiracy reasoning doesn’t seem to be inherently illogical on its face.

However, as Byford points out, conspiracy theory is a “tradition of explanation” (conspiracy theories don’t arise from nowhere but draw upon earlier narratives, often with deeply problematic origins) that has a shockingly bad strike rate. Real conspiracies have certainly happened – Watergate, Iran-Contra etc. – but how many have ever been uncovered by conspiracy theorists?

Academic discussions of conspiracy theory tend to focus on long-lived varieties, the ones that attract large numbers of adherents around a relatively stable core. It’s that duration that allowed Steve Clarke to analyse these theories using the framework of progressive and degenerating research programs, borrowed from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. In science, progressive research programs explain more and more observations and make successful predictions. When confronted by data that seems to disconfirm the theory, they posit ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ that actually strengthen the theory, by allowing it to explain and predict even more.

Degenerating research programs, by contrast, are stuck on the defensive: they don’t explain any new observations, nor make successful predictions, and are constantly having to defend themselves from new data that contradicts the theory. Clarke is right that most conspiracy theories are like that. If the various US shootings are government false flags designed to help Obama implement gun control, why is it taking so long? Shouldn’t at least one whistleblower have come forward?

A conspiracy theorist, led by the inexorable logic of their tradition of explanation, might double down at this point: the conspiracies we think we know about are just covers for the real conspiracies, while the reason conspiracy theory never seems to yield results is that the conspirators are making sure it doesn’t. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence: it’s proof positive of a conspiracy.

You can see how that sort of theorising is, to a certain extent, a frictionless spinning in a void. Any observation confirms the conspiracy, and any data that seems to disconfirm it also confirms it. It’s an ‘explanation’ of observed reality that comes at the cost of making its central beliefs unfalsifiable. But that’s not the only problem.

To believe in conspiracy theory, you must believe in conspirators. To maintain a conspiracy theory for any length of time, you must claim that more and more people are in on the conspiracy. Clinging to degenerating research programs of this type involves making more and more unevidenced accusations against people you know nothing about. That’s not without moral cost. Suspicion should always involve a certain reluctance, a certain forbearance from thinking the worst of people – a virtue that is sacrificed in the name of keeping the conspiracy theory going. In the process, real human tragedy is made into a plaything, fodder for feverish speculation that does no real epistemic or practical work.

Our relationship to each other and to society as a whole also only works against a generalised assumption of trustworthiness. Imagine if you believed by default that everyone is lying to you: how could you possibly function, or even communicate? Laura D’Olimpio recently wrote on Cogito about the importance of trust, and the corresponding vulnerability that requires us to accept. One crucial dimension of trust as a pervasive phenomenon in our lives is its role in our epistemology: most of what we know, we actually take on trust from the testimony of others. I only know that Iceland exists because I don’t believe, to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard, in a ‘conspiracy of cartographers.’

To maintain a conspiracy theory requires us to throw out more and more of our socially-mediated sources of knowledge, and to give up more and more of the trust in each other and in our knowledge-generating mechanisms that we are utterly dependent upon. On some level, the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ ultimately asks us to give up on society altogether. And that takes us to a very dangerous place indeed.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Philosopher