Philosophy Communication: A Call to Arms?

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

I’ve just gotten back from a quick trip to Canberra, where the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference is currently in full swing at ANU. Unfortunately I couldn’t get up there for the whole thing this year, but last night, after the very great pleasure of hearing Philip Pettit give the Alan Saunders Memorial Lecture, I was deeply honoured to receive the AAP’s Media Prize for 2013.

(I’m also delighted to say that Antonia Case from New Philosopher won the Media Professional’s Prize – huge congrats to Antonia, and thanks to Antonia and Zan for their support of philosophy and for producing such a great mag.)

I had the chance to say a few words, and the Media Prize has a $500 prize attached, so used the opportunity to explain what I’d like to do with that prize money. Basically, I’d like to use it as seed funding to kick off a discussion I’m hoping to get going in the discipline.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

This is a fairly uncertain time in which to be a philosopher. No-one’s making us drink hemlock or anything, and being a professional philosopher is still a pretty awesome way to earn a crust – at least for those who manage to secure one of the increasingly scarce jobs without ending up being trapped in casualised limbo or simply lost to the discipline altogether. But with politicians telling us we’re “ridiculous,” and high-profile astrophysicists calling us obsolete, pointless (e tu, Neil DeGrasse Tyson?), or both, it’s never been more important for philosophers to be out in the agora. We can’t expect people to care about philosophy if we’re not out there explaining to them why they should.

And there’s plenty of philosophers out there doing really great work in the media and in other ways, both from within the Academy and without. I’m thinking of folks like Nigel Warburton, Julian Baggini, Eric Schwitzgebel (drop whatever you’re doing and go read his Aeon piece), Angie Hobbs, Massimo Pigliucci, and many more. Yes, even him.

Here in Oz we’re no slouches either; among others, Raimond Gaita, Chris Cordner, Simon Longstaff and Peter Singer, for instance, have all made important interventions into public discourse. (And check today’s Drum piece by Matthew Beard).

So there’s already a lot of people who are really good at talking to and with the public about philosophy. And yet, for a discipline that loves nothing so much as going meta, we don’t seem to talk about talking about philosophy much.

And on this front at least, Hawking might just have a point: the sciences are way out in front. They disciplinised science communication a thing a long time ago. You can study it, you can publish on it, you can make a career out of it. Scientists have stepped back from their benchtops to critically thematise scientific literacy, and then studied how best to go about producing it.

So here’s the discussion I reckon it’d be interesting to have: what’s philosophy communication? If we think of what we do when we do ‘popular’ or ‘outreach’ work, what are we doing? How do we know when we’re doing it effectively? What are we trying to achieve? What does philosophical literacy look like? There’s been some pedagogical discussion of that last concept, but outside the literature on teaching philosophy the very idea of philosophical literacy is  unfamiliar enough that FauxPhilNews could use it as the basis of a joke.

Of course, science and philosophy are very different animals. We aren’t going to be holding press conferences announcing new findings (again, FauxPhilNews already did it). But we do have a lot of things to say about just about everything.

And what we say can be very well-received too. Sticking your head above the parapet is risky, and a certain number of people will knock philosophy and philosophers almost reflexively. Thus life on these here interwebs. But the responses I’ve had from people over the last couple of years of dabbling in media has also suggested to me that there’s a genuine demand for philosophy.

So what I propose is that we start talking about philosophy communication. How we do that, I’m not exactly sure. But you might. If you do, drop me a line.

Fuming with outrage: Nazis, nannies and smoking

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

A few years ago I saw a poster stuck to the wall of a train station in Copenhagen. The poster was a protest paid for by a prominent Danish musician against new regulations against smoking in public. At the top was a sarcastic “Congratulations on the smoking ban” followed by the German phrase “Gesundheit Macht Frei” (good health makes you free).

You might think invoking “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the slogan above the gates at Auschwitz, to complain about not being able to smoke in bars is pretty tasteless. More likely than not, it’ll also distract from the message you’re trying to send.

So, lesson learnt, defenders of smoking: no more comparing smoking ban proponents to Nazis, okay?

Enter The Australian’s Adam Creighton, comparing the Rudd government’s increase on tobacco excise to the anti-smoking campaigns of Nazi Germany. This should end well.

Now, to his credit, Creighton isn’t just running a lazy “argumentum ad Hitlerum” i.e. “You know who else hated smoking?” Rather, he’s claiming that Australia’s attempts to discourage smoking are “being sold with the same flawed economic and moral arguments that underpinned Nazi Germany’s policies.” Which arguments are these?

Individuals and the State

What the Nazis and the Italian Fascists believed, roughly, is that individuals only have significance and purpose through and in the State. This sort of totalitarianism is indeed repugnant, not just because of the suffering it causes, but because of the distorting and reductive view of the moral value of human beings it presents.

Against this, Creighton appeals to the liberal harm principle, as championed by figures like John Stuart Mill. Again, very roughly, this principle states that we’re only entitled to interfere in the actions of others where those actions cause harm to other people. You are morally permitted to do whatever you like so long as you’re not harming anyone else in the process.

So according to defenders of smoking, coercive attempts to reduce smoking infringe on an area that, so long as no-one else is affected, is properly a matter of free individual choice. Creighton accepts that restrictions on smoking in public are legitimate given the dangers of second-hand smoke, but punitive measures designed to stop people smoking are not:

government should butt out of individuals’ decision to smoke privately, or to engage in any other behaviour that might entail personal costs without harm to others.

Part of the reason Mill’s harm principle is intuitively satisfying is that individual liberty does matter. Both classical liberalism and its more radical libertarian offshoot respond to genuine and important features of the moral landscape: all else being equal it’s better if we let people do what they want. At its best, strident liberalism is a healthy bulwark against excessive paternalism and coercion.

But these positions also rely on a hopelessly atomistic picture of what human beings are. They see each of us as a free, rational, self-contained, self-directed agent, an independent, sovereign individual living alongside other sovereign individuals, entering into free contracts for mutual benefit.

Where does harm end?

Philosophers have spent a lot of time taking that view of human nature apart: we are far less free, transparent-to-ourselves and rational than liberalism (and the economic theories it underpins) assumes. We’re also far more radically interconnected and dependent upon others. Our borders are considerably more porous than the sovereign individual model would suggest.

But even within his own liberal worldview, Creighton’s argument runs into serious problems. For one thing even Mill had to allow that there are some harms you’re not permitted to inflict even upon yourself, such as selling yourself into slavery or committing suicide.

If you wrestle a gun away from a would-be suicide, we don’t take you to be committing assault – but surely killing yourself is an essentially “private” matter if anything is? If we’re allowed to stop people throwing themselves off bridges, why aren’t we entitled to at least make it harder (if not impossible) for them to kill themselves with tobacco?

And is smoking only a harm to the individual? The harm principle notoriously runs into problems with questions like this. Creighton insists that things like the “psychological costs of premature death” are “purely personal costs” and so none of the state’s business.

But of course death does not only affect the person who dies; deaths ramify through families, friendship circles, workplaces, social networks – just where does the private end and the public begin?

There’s more

And then there’s this:

Amazingly – given smokers choose to smoke – popular estimates of “net costs” ignore any personal benefit smokers might derive from smoking. And they disregard the offsetting savings from substantially lower health and age-pension costs as a result of smoking-induced premature deaths.

You read that right: we should factor in the money we save from smokers dying early as a benefit.

And therein lies the problem: casting this wholly as a private, personal freedom issue is basically a refusal to take the moral gravity of premature death seriously. That, in turn, involves denying that persons have an intrinsic worth, beyond whatever economic or social value they might happen to have – to understand the value of persons you have to understand what is lost to the world when they die, and vice versa.

Those who complain about a “nanny state” trying to stop people from getting themselves killed are ignoring the significance of death and the responsibilities that generates. And an outlook that thinks we should weigh that human tragedy against the money it saves us has long since lost any right to call itself morally serious.

None of this should be read as a plea to ban smoking: prohibition doesn’t exactly have a glittering history of success anyway. To reiterate, personal freedom matters, and we often need to leave people alone to make their own objectively dreadful choices.

But that right of non-interference may not be absolute, as the suicide and slavery examples show; and there is plenty of scope for policy moves designed to discourage people from harming themselves.

Of course, ideally we wouldn’t need to interfere in people’s lives at all. If you don’t want a nanny telling you what to do, maybe it’s time to grow up.

Drowning Mercy: Why We Fear The Boats

[Originally posted at The Conversation; I’d invite you to join the discussion there but they shut it down. Things got a bit heated, I think.]

There’s a Latin word: misericordia.

It’s usually translated “mercy” or “pity”. Thomas Aquinas took misericordia to be a kind of grief at the suffering of others as if that suffering were our own. Alasdair MacIntyre, the leading modern exponent of Thomist virtue ethics, sees misericordia as a responsiveness to the distress of others that offers the same concern we would normally show to those in our own family, community or country to total strangers.

Misericordia in this sense is the virtue of the Good Samaritan; it’s the virtue the ancient Chinese sage Mencius describes in the way we would rush to help a child who has fallen down a well, not through hope of reward, but simply through concern for the child – any child.

You might say this particular virtue went missing at sea the day the Special Air Service was ordered to board the MV Tampa. We have been doing our best to keep it from surfacing ever since.

And so it has come to this. Not only are we denying asylum seekers arriving by boat any prospect of resettlement in Australia, we are publishing pictures of their anguish at being told so. Whether this is genuinely meant to deter people from risking death on the high seas, or whether, as Melbourne philosopher Damon Young put it, it’s “immigration torture porn for xenophobes”, it seems we now see the suffering of others as an opportunity to exploit rather than a call to action.

The consensus among the commentariat has been that all this will go over beautifully in an electorate that has long seen boat arrivals as a standing existential threat. As journalist David Marr points out, Rudd is merely the latest prime minister to play on our disproportionate fear of “boat people”. The moves are new but the game itself is decades old.

It’s a bizarre national obsession and it begs for answers: why are we so scared of the boats?

No doubt straightforward racism is a very big part of it. But that can’t be the whole story: if it were, why has the government not been pilloried for talking about raising the overall humanitarian intake? Why is there no comparable outrage over the considerably larger number of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by air? If it’s about respect for Australian law, where’s the outrage over visa overstayers, a much larger cohort than asylum seekers? If it’s driven by opposition to population growth, where were all those “F—– Off, We’re Full” stickers when the Baby Bonus was introduced?

So what is it that boat arrivals symbolise that other forms of arrival don’t? Well, here’s a stab at an answer: they remind Australians that we haven’t earned what we’ve got.

Consider John Howard’s “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” line. That same message has been built into all our rhetoric on boat arrivals ever since: we don’t have to take you, and unless you come here entirely on our terms, we won’t. Form an orderly line, jump through this set of hoops, and maybe we’ll let you in. You’re welcome.

This emphasis on sovereignty over mercy serves to bolster the idea that “our way of life” is somehow ours by right, and so within our gift to bestow or withhold however we see fit. A gift, by its nature, must be freely given and gratuitous; it cannot be demanded of us. And it must be ours to give; we can only share what we ourselves are entitled to.

Except, of course, we haven’t earned such an entitlement at all.

Consider what Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos told a Q&A audience this week:

…our obligation…is to give people protection. It is not to guarantee them a first world lifestyle in every case when they come to Australia.

But then, by what right are we guaranteed such a lifestyle? What law of nature or reason determines that we get to live in luxury simply by virtue of the accident of birth?

Consider the slogan bandied about during the Cronulla riots: “I grew here, you flew here” – as if it was a personal achievement to be born on this part of the earth’s surface at this point in history. It’s not. It’s sheer dumb luck. It’s nice to be lucky, but it’s no merit.

I suspect on some level that’s what boat arrivals remind us of: the radical contingency of everything we have. It’s not just that we’re repulsed by undeserved misfortune – “there but for the grace of God go I”; “really makes you think, doesn’t it?” – we’re deeply unsettled by undeserved good fortune too.

As a species we always have been. That’s why we invented doctrines like karma, so we could insist that those born into abased misery or obscene privilege must, somehow, be getting their just deserts. In the modern West we have a similar myth: that “anyone can make it” if they just work hard enough, and so the poor must simply be lazy, undeserving – as if talent and even the capacity for hard work itself aren’t themselves dealt out by random chance.

Acknowledging such radical contingency knocks the ground from under out feet. It suggests our claim to our prosperity ultimately rests on happy accident rather than cosmic justice. No amount of “Cronulla capes” and bumper stickers and half-remembered tales of Bradman riding Phar Lap to victory at Gallipoli can change that.

K.E. Løgstrup, a 20th century Danish moral philosopher who deserves to be much better known outside Scandinavia than he is, argued that once we see the gratuitousness of what we have, we can no longer stand on our own rights in order to begrudge others our help. Our individual sovereignty is shattered by the realisation that everything we have is, ultimately, a gift we’ve received, not an entitlement we’ve earned.

Perhaps that’s why the boats scare us: they remind us of a far more demanding ethics lurking behind our comfortable norms of reciprocity and exchange. Perhaps that’s at least part of why we go to such lengths to dehumanise, to demonise, to refuse to see asylum seekers in their full humanity.

None of what I’ve just written fixes the problem or even offers any policy suggestions whatsoever. Understanding our motives won’t stop people dying at sea – as I write this, yet more lives have just been lost.

But the moral demand to respond with misericordia hasn’t gone away. And we cannot act morally, or even see others properly, if we’re more concerned about justifying our own privilege.

A Horse is a Horse: Sexism vs. Speciesism

‘Year-in-review’ articles are meant to get people talking. Or, fill out column inches during a quiet time of year. Either way, I doubt the Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield and Darren Hadland were expecting the backlash they received just before Christmas, when they declared racehorse Black Caviar the Tele’s ‘Sportswoman of the Year.’

Not surprisingly, Twitter rounded on Rothfield almost immediately, with media figures such as Wendy Harmer and Tara Moss weighing in on what clearly looks to be, at best, obliviously sexist. Rothfield telling Harmer to ‘pull her head in’ on the basis that ‘Caviar is a girl’ didn’t help.

The astute observer may have noticed that whatever else she is, Black Caviar is not a woman. She is female, but she is not a woman (or a girl for that matter). To horribly oversimplify, ‘female’ refers to the biological category of sex, while ‘woman’ refers to the social category of gender. A horse has a sex, but it does not have a gender. ‘Woman’ is a specifically human category, one that involves situation in a network of meanings that simply aren’t available or applicable to nonhuman animals.

And this is why awarding the title of ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ to Black Caviar is so galling: it reduces women to their female bodies. The decision suggests there were no actual women worthy of the title, so we’ll just pick the nearest deserving female as if that’s the same thing. That, in turn, collapses ‘woman’ into ‘female’ and thus essentialises gender. This is the old trick of sexism: women come to be defined by their biology, men do not. As Simone de Beauvoir noted, both men and women secrete hormones, but men are never accused of thinking ‘hormonally’ no matter how much testosterone is involved.

In the context of the position of women in sport, the Tele’s decision looks tin-eared at best and sinister at worst. Harmer took to her blog to point out how insulting this decision looks given “the utter bullshit [sportswomen] have to cope with – year in and year out.” I’ve no doubt she’s right. The effect of the article is clearly belittling, playing to the idea that women’s sport is necessarily boring, secondary, less legitimate. In sport as in other aspects of life, women are, as de Beauvoir put it, made into the ‘other.’ The defaults of the species are implicitly set to ‘male.’

What was interesting though was the sheer incredulity displayed by many at the very idea that a horse could even be considered as competing with humans. ABC journo Jeremy Fernandez, for instance, tweeted that Australia II also ‘stopped a nation’ as Black Caviar had done, but that didn’t make it a sportswoman. No-one, as best I can tell, pulled Fernandez up for comparing a sentient nonhuman animal to a yacht, equating a horse with a mere object.

Given the perfectly valid focus on gender, no-one, it seemed, stop to ask: why shouldn’t a horse be in the running (sorry) for recognition alongside human sportspeople? If we’re going to laud extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, why must the only animals to be so rewarded be homo sapiens? Perhaps there are valid answers to that question, but what struck me was that no-one even thought to raise it.

We find ourselves caught here between sexism and speciesism. We’ve finally come to a point where we can recognize the former, though clearly we still have a very long way to go. Speciesism, however, barely even registers.

The moral progress of humanity has been largely a process of coming to see the wrongness of discrimination on the basis of morally irrelevant differences – gender, race, sexuality, and so on. With regard to how we treat nonhuman animals, the question is basically this: which features that distinguish humans from animals are morally relevant and therefore justify differential regard? What is it that humans have that animals don’t that justifies putting our interests ahead of those of nonhuman animals, in what ways and to what extents?

As the last few decades of animal ethics has shown, these turn out to be deeply complex questions, to which there have been no shortage of answers put forward. I’m not denying there are such relevant features, by the way, as if human and nonhuman animals are morally equal. The capacity for rationality and self-reflection, for instance, seem to make a vast difference morally. But is it an absolute difference? And does it matter in the same way in all contexts?

Let’s stick to what we’re rewarding here: sporting performance. We’re not talking about ‘best and fairest.’ We’re simply talking about who can run the fastest or score the highest. Of course most sports involve a degree of conceptualisation that is not available to nonhuman animals – but if we’re going to laud individuals for doing physical things that almost no other individuals of their species can do, doesn’t Black Caviar fall into that category? Why is a human running really fast around a track qualitatively different, in a morally relevant way, from a horse doing the same thing (with ‘really fast’ relative to species-average in each case)?

Perhaps the simplest, most elegant solution for the Telegraph would have been to declare Black Caviar “Athlete of the Year.”

That would have done the Tele’s Sportsman of the Year out of his award too. But if Black Caviar trumped every human sportswoman in 2012, I dare say a good argument could also be made for her beating Rothfield and Hadland’s pick, Michael Clarke.

Mind you, I’m not much of a cricket fan. Though if Clarke had to play with someone sitting on his back, whipping him every time it looked like he was about to be run out, I’d probably watch. And I quite like the idea that Ricky Ponting is now living out his days in a nice paddock somewhere, with all the apples and sugar cubes he could wish for.

So this solution would have avoided the obnoxious sexism of the Tele’s conflation of ‘female horse’ with ‘woman’ whilst simultaneously taking Black Caviar seriously as an athlete, regardless of her species. Win-win, no?

Of course, maybe we’re not prepared to take nonhuman animals seriously as athletes. If that’s the case, perhaps we should stop forcing them to perform athletic feats for our entertainment? Just a thought.