Is it OK to punch Nazis?

Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board, c. 1942-3. National Archives and Records Administration (US)

Hey, remember 2016? When all those beloved celebrities kept dying and we couldn’t wait for the year to be over? We’re now less than a month into 2017 and a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, and the internet finds itself seriously conflicted over whether it’s ok to punch Nazis.

Nostalgic yet?

The dapper Backpfeifengesicht of the Alt-Right

Backpfeifengesicht n. (German) ‘A face in need of a slap’
Vas Panagiotopoulos/flickr

Meet Richard Spencer. Spencer is a major figure in the alt-right, a term he claims to have invented. Profiles of him tend to note his education, dapper suits, expensive watch, and haircut.

He is also an ardent and wholly unrepentant white supremacist and ethnonationalist who advocates what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to achieve a “white homeland.” He says America belongs to white people, who he claims have higher average IQs than Hispanic and African Americans and that the latter are genetically predisposed to crime. He has called for eugenicist forced sterilisation (but it’s ok, you see, because “They could still enjoy sex. You are not ruining their life”). The nice suits are no accident: Spencer deliberately cultivates a ‘respectable’ facade from which to spout his grotesque racist ideology.

And he loves him some Trump. At an alt-right conference not long after Trump won the 2016 election, Spencer yelled “Hail Trump!” prompting some of his supporters to give the Nazi salute. He insisted that’s somehow acceptable because it was done in a spirit of “irony and exuberance.”

Some – Spencer himself, for one – insist Richard B. “Let’s party like it’s 1933” Spencer is not, in fact, a neo-Nazi. To some extent it’s a moot question, but for present purposes we’ll follow popular usage and use ‘Nazi’ as shorthand for ‘people who advocate the sort of views Richard Spencer advocates’ rather than anything more specific to the historical NSDAP.

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Spencer was giving a street interview when a masked protester emerged from the crowd and punched him in the head. At least two video cameras captured the incident. And because we’re living in the future now, within hours Twitter was flooded with remixes of the punch video set to music.

There’s at least two ethically salient questions in play here: is it morally permissible to punch Nazis? And is it morally permissible to enjoy or exploit footage (or even the fact) of Nazis being punched?

Consequences of Nazi-Punching

One major line of reasoning against Nazi-punching runs like this: if you start punching Nazis, you thereby legitimate or encourage forms of political violence that can be used against you. This is not an argument about rights – it doesn’t say ‘if you punch Nazis they’re allowed to punch you back’ – or draw any false moral equivalence between Nazis and non-Nazis. It’s simply about consequences. Such reasoning is vulnerable to counter-arguments however: for instance, that Nazi-punching productively serves to make being a Nazi harder, and in any case, Nazis will, if given a chance, punch people anyway.

These are important inputs into our moral reasoning. But they’re not the whole story. Analogous arguments are sometimes offered against things like torture and capital punishment. “Torture doesn’t produce reliable information” or “the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrant” are relevant facts when considering what’s wrong with such practices. But very often they don’t so much answer the moral question as try to put it out of play. They’re a way of saying “we don’t actually have to answer whether it’s morally wrong to punch Nazis because it’s strategically a bad idea.”

Political violence and the liberal state

A key feature of the liberal democratic state as it has emerged over the last two hundred years or so is that the State reserves the use of force for itself. Outside of consensual settings like boxing rings, private citizens are limited to using violence only in self-defense.

Political violence, according to this understanding, only becomes legitimate in contexts when the liberal democratic sphere, and the protections and freedoms it affords, has broken down – for instance, where tyranny makes certain forms of violent resistence effectively self-defense. That some such point exists seems hard to dispute. The difficulty is knowing when that point has been reached, such that politics legitimates the use of violence against others, and what sort of violence is thereby legitimated.

The US is still, at least at the time of writing, a more-or-less functional liberal democracy. That cannot be assumed to hold: given his attacks in the space of one week on the media, women, immigrants, science, and apparent threat to invade Chicago, it’s far from clear whether and how the US as we know it can survive Trump. But at least on January 20th, punching an unarmed Nazi in the street doesn’t appear to rise to the level of self-defense.

But then it’s easy for me to say that. I’m not American, and more importantly, I’m not a target of the genocidal. I’ve never felt what it is to be hated by someone who thinks people like me should not exist. And of course it’s much easier to insist the norms of civil society are still in place if you’re systematically less likely to be harassed or killed by agents of the State.

Breakdowns of the moral sphere

Still, if you want to say that punching Nazis is ok, the first step is to make a case that we find ourselves in one of those exceptional periods in which things have so broken down that the use of political violence has become temporarily legitimate. (Or, alternatively, argue for a very different understanding of legitimate political violence than that which holds in contemporary liberal democracies).

Under such conditions, even philosophers and theologians who put deferential love of others at the core of their ethics have been moved to assist in violent resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Knud Ejler Løgstrup were both Lutheran priests, and both ethicists centrally concerned with our love of others. During World War II Løgstrup took part in the Danish Resistance (which assassinated around 400 Nazi collaborators, some dubiously), while Bonhoeffer was involved with the Abwehr conspiractors who hatched the 20 July Plot to assassinate Hitler. Løgstrup was forced into hiding but survived; Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in the dying weeks of the war.

Violence and guilt

But Bonhoeffer did not think that necessity washed away the moral stain of violence:

when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.

Political violence unavoidably reduces the life and body of another human being to a means to achieve a political end. There are desperate circumstances in which that becomes necessary. But in those instances one does not avoid guilt – rather one takes on the guilt of violence for the sake of preserving the moral life we share. Violence may become necessary, but that does not make it good, merely least-worst. It is not clear that punching Richard Spencer was the least-worst available option.

That brings us to the second question. Most of the people discussing the punching of the Nazi Spencer have not actually punched a Nazi and in most cases are unlikely to do so anytime soon. They’re simply commenting on and remediating images of someone else doing so.

That seems to be a long way removed from seeing political violence as a regrettable but sadly necessary means of repairing the fabric of ethical society. It’s just enjoying the sight of another – utterly repugnant – person being punched.

Ok, but don’t we cheer the punching of Nazis in other contexts? Don’t we cheer for Indiana Jones and Captain America when they’re doing just that?

Yes, but when we do so, we’re watching fiction. Moreover, we’re watching fictional violence offered in response to violent antagonism, and carried out for a clear purpose. We’re in different territory when we cheer not the purpose for which violence is done, but the act of violence itself. In that case we don’t regret an instance of necessary force, but simply revel in suffering.

The ConversationAgain, I speak from a position of privilege. I’ve never been threatened with violence in word or deed on the basis of who I am. I don’t presume to tell those who have how they should feel about Nazis like Spencer. But for people like me at least, deciding what to share and endorse, things look bleak enough without cheering on the darkness.

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

Senator, You’re No Socrates

In ‘The Clouds,’ Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, suspended in a basket to enable him to study the skies. Joannes Sambucus, 1564

So, we all knew Malcolm Roberts, former project leader of the climate denialist Galileo Movement turned One Nation politician, would make an ‘interesting’ first speech to the Senate. If you’ve been following Senator Roberts’ career, most of what he said was more or less predictable. The UN (“unelected swill” – take a bow, PJK), the IMF and the EU are monstrous socialist behemoths with a “frightening agenda,” climate change is a “scam,” the “tight-knit international banking sector” (a dangerous phrase given Roberts’ history of discussing international “banking families”) are “One of the greatest threats to our liberty and life as we know it.”

It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.

What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:

Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.

A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?


Epistemic revolt

The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.

Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.

Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?

Distributed knowledge

But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.

Also well known for their skill at Invisible Basketball. Raphael

Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.

That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.

So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?

If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)

Dismissing expertise

But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.

Jim Benton/

That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.

Auxiliary Accusations

This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.

In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.

From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.

The ConversationFor anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.

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

The ‘no’ campaign on marriage equality owes us better arguments


Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team/Wikimedia commons

With the re-election of the Turnbull government, the likelihood that marriage equality in Australia will be the subject of a harmful, expensive, and non-binding plebiscite becomes ever more likely. That may also mean the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns will receive public funding to put their cases.

If we’re going to go ahead with this, then we need to hold both campaigns to the highest standards of public reason. We need to call out bad arguments whenever and wherever they appear, and expose any hidden premises for scrutiny.

The response of prominent ‘no’ voices to new adoption reforms in Queensland suggests we’re going to have our hands very full doing so.

Adoption changes

On 6th August, the Queensland Communities Minister Shannon Fentiman announced changes to the state’s adoption laws, allowing same-sex couples, singles, and couples undergoing IVF to adopt.

Shortly thereafter, the Australian Christian Lobby, probably the most visible proponents of the case against allowing same-sex couples to be legally married, put out a press release condemning the changes:

Today’s announcement by the Palaszczuk Government to allow single people and same-sex couples to adopt orphaned children ignores society’s obligation to provide them with a mother and father.
“It is not like there is a shortage of married couples who cannot have children who would gladly provide orphans with the stability and nurture that comes from an adoptive mother and father,” the Australian Christian Lobby’s Queensland Director Wendy Francis said.

We’ll come back to that emphasis on orphans in a moment. Francis goes on:

“They are, through no fault of their own, without biological parents, and are in need of a new permanent family. To deny them a mother’s love, or a father’s care, is compounding their loss. As we know, and social science proves, it is in the best interests of a child to experience the love of a mum and a dad, wherever possible,” she said.

Who is a parent?

There’s at least two meanings to the term ‘parent,’ though the fact many of us are parents in both senses tends to obscure the difference.

One meaning is biological and purely descriptive. Parenthood in this sense is also an either/or proposition: a DNA test, for instance, reveals you’re either the biological father of a child, or you’re not.

The other sense of ‘parent’ is social and normative. A parent in this sense is a person who fulfils a particular role in a child’s life. That role is complex, but includes distinctive types of responsibility for unconditionally loving, raising, and protecting children. This sense admits of degrees, too: you can be more or less of a father in the social sense.

Darth Vader is Luke’s father only in the biological sense. Conversely, many step-parents and adoptive parents are parents in the second sense – not merely substitute parents or guardians or in loco parentis, but actually, substantively, parents.

No, Luke, I am your father, but only in one of the two relevant senses.
Jim Reynolds/Wikimedia

Adoptive parents

The ACL often give the impression that their concern is fundamentally about biological rather than social parenthood. ACL’s managing director Lyle Shelton has framed much of his organisation’s opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis that it would legitimize same-sex parenting (despite the fact this already occurs, perfectly successfully) and that this form of parenting involves “taking a baby away from its mother, from the breast of its mother and giving it to two men.”

That, pretty clearly, puts the biological ahead of the social sense of ‘parent,’ given that Shelton also insists “Our objection … is not that same-sex parents cannot be good parents – of course they can be.”

However, ACL’s opposition to allowing orphans in particular to be adopted by same-sex couples explodes that argument. If your objection to same-sex parenting is based on the premise that children should be raised by their biological parents wherever possible, that objection can have no force in cases where there’s no possibility of that happening. As orphans by definition cannot be raised by their biological parents anymore, the adoptive “mum and dad” Francis insists upon must be parents in the social sense, not the biological sense.

So if it’s not about biological relation, why should the gender of the adoptive parents matter?

It seems we’re left with two options: either parents need to ‘model’ gender roles for their children, or men and women parent differently in ways that are jointly beneficial. Let’s consider these options in turn.

Modelling gender

Commentators like the ACL often rail against the understanding that gender is “fluid.” This opposition suggests, then, that they believe gender (or some part thereof) to be fixed, innate, and biologically essential.

But if that’s the case, then it’s not clear why kids would need parents of specific genders to act as exemplars at all. Surely innate gender traits would develop regardless of who does the parenting? Left-handed kids don’t need a left-handed parent to show them how to be left-handed; if ‘boyishness’ and ‘girlishness’ are similarly innate, why would they need to be modelled?

On the other hand, if gender roles are not innate, it might make sense that they need to be modelled and taught in order to be acquired. Or perhaps they’re more like talents: innate, but requiring training and practice to realise. But in either case, we now need to hear a reason why they should be taught and realised. We need a reason to believe gender roles matter, or at least matter enough to frame laws around who can adopt.

But what reason could that be? ‘No’ proponents clearly think gender is important, but never tell us why. And given the obvious harms gender norms inflict on people – telling women to be submissive, men to be emotionally distant and aggressive etc. – any attempt to argue in their favour would be starting from a very long way behind.

Parenting styles

That brings us to the second option: the claim that men and women parent differently, and children benefit from having one of each. Shelton has made this point too: “no matter how great a mum is, she is not a father. And however great a dad is, he is not a mother.”

But again we’re left wondering why having ‘one of each’ should be best for children, or why we’d think a lack of both harmful. Even a full-blown gender essentialist who thinks the differences between ‘fathering’ and ‘mothering’ are biologically grounded owes us an account of why that makes those differences valuable. (Aggression and selfishness might also be biologically grounded, but we don’t think that makes being aggressive or selfish morally obligatory – quite the opposite in fact).

Ideology and theology

The ACL, Marriage Alliance, and other such groups like to warn of the dangers of a vaguely-defined “rainbow ideology.” More broadly we’re told that programs like Safe Schools are “ideological,” which we’re instantly meant to understand as a Bad Thing. As Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher (three strikes right there…) put it, “the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself.”

That, according to Althusser, is precisely how ideology works: it makes a given state of affairs seem as if it was obviously how things must be, “common sense” rather than contingent and changeable. Such as, for instance, the view that that men ‘naturally’ parent in a certain way and women in a different way.

That the ACL’s view is ideological isn’t a fault, by the way. All views are. But the ‘No’ campaign need to be honest with us about their premises. They aren’t just worried about children’s access to their biological parents. As the reaction to orphan adoption shows, their concern is that they think gender roles and heterosexual parenting are somehow normative.

In short, they’re relying on unstated assumptions that are deeply contentious, and hard to motivate properly unless you first believe that human beings are created by God, and that this creation infuses aspects of our biology, such as gender and reproduction, with moral purpose.

That’s a view with a long and rich history. It’s also one that has no place determining policy in a genuinely secular society that rightly excludes revelation claims from public ethics.

The ConversationThe ‘no’ campaign has a right to prosecute its case (though not, as I’ve previously argued here, in a way that violates norms against vilification). But doing so brings with it a responsibility to be honest with the public about what they’re really arguing. Now would be a good time for them to start.

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

Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

Pauline Hanson, Michael Gove, and Donald Trump. Dragons Abreast Australia; Policy Exchange; Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism and she wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring:

Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group that denies anthropogenic climate change and insists the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the ‘90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians”, Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” is advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt dissociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed”.

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But, then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the prime minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the break-up of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and who has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved in the Kennedy assassination).

Of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Dennis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics”, the condition in which norms of truth-telling no longer constrain political discourse. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem.

To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it.

Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology”. But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either.

Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise are nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, so you have to take more and more on trust.

Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave”. If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit, or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service, rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

The ConversationExpertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second 15 minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

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

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,


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.