The Old as a Barrier to the New

19 04 2012

Techdirt has an interesting piece on the follies of the publishing industry in shifting its business model over to ebooks and digital publishing, focusing on the utter and infuriating pointlessness of DRM, or digital rights management.

It makes the salient point that DRM fails because it makes a legitimate product less useful, and therefore less valuable, than a pirated one, which can be acquired easier and cheaper than the legitimate product.

However, the piece also raises a bigger point about the impact of change on existing industries. And there’s a little psychology and decision theory to explain why almost all industries almost always screw up the transition phase, largely motivated by their desire not to go extinct, and then go extinct anyway. This is particularly true of publishing and the media.

Here’s the story:

Company A has an existing product, X,  which sells for a high price and achieves a good margin.

A new disruptive technology emerges which, like most disruptive technologies, make things less expensive to produce and/or disseminate.

This results in a cheaper product Y that competes with the more expensive old technology product X.

Company A now has a number of choices – and it’ll always choose the wrong one:

1) Lower the price of X to compete with Y, thus crippling its margins and forcing it to lower the quality of X to appalling levels. This is what most newspaper publishers have done in response to the internet. Now their print editions and online editions are scraping the bottom of the barrel, while online outlets, like the Huffington Post, boom.

2) Sell both X and Y. However, now they’re competing with themselves, and Y will win, putting the long-established X department out of business. But X makes a good margin and the company doesn’t want to lose that, or change its business model. So the company raises the price of Y well above its cost to make X competitive against it. However, now Y is unreasonably overpriced in the eyes of consumers, who can probably easily get Y free illegally. This is what book publishers are doing by pricing ebooks at only a fraction lower than print books, and television and movie studios with DVDs vs. downloads. Then company B comes along, unhindered by the old technology, and it only produces product Y, and puts company A out of business anyway, like iTunes did to the music industry.

3) Transition from product X to Y, and either phase out X entirely, or find an equilibrium between the two. Y will rarely entirely replace X, and X will likely have to change, such as bestseller fiction moving to ebooks while quality hardbacks remain in print, or top 10 music going digital while vinyl lives on. Y will be priced such that it’s competitive, and it’ll supplant X fairly rapidly, with the business model adapting and departments probably closing. Businesses almost never take this option, even though it’s the most rational.

Basically, management, when faced with the decision of competing with themselves or continuing business as usual, will almost always continue business as usual. And, in doing so, they effectively let other companies compete with them and put them out of business anyway.

This is because most management are intrinsically conservative, they seek to protect the business model they know (and thus their own jobs), even at the expense of the business at large. Few managers have the courage to actively destroy part of their company in order to compete in a new environment, and thus passively destroy the entire company.

I’ve seen this phenomenon unfold a dozen times in my career, and I expect it’ll continue as long as new disruptive technologies emerge.

The upshot is we’re currently living in a transition time where many industries are busy making their mistakes, but they haven’t gone out of business quite yet. When they do, and new business emerge that embrace the new technology, then things will settle into a new equilibrium – and BitTorrent will suddenly decline in popularity, as did music filesharing systems once iTunes emerged.

I look forward to that day.

Religion for Atheists Review

19 04 2012

ABC Religion and Ethics has posted a review I penned of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.

Despite the negative press de Botton has received from some quarters of the New Atheist movement, his book is a worthwhile contribution to moving the discourse about god, atheism and religion forward.

In the wake of the atheist convention here in Australia, there’s renewed discussion about religion, but sadly, most of it is the same old to-and-fro that we’ve seen for decades. This kind of debating is mostly fruitless and, for the most part, a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What we need right now is for some of the very smart people behind the current atheism push to shift emphasis towards building secular culture, whether that be underpinned by Humanism or another system of values. And in creating secular culture, there’s a lot we can learn from religion.

de Botton’s particular approach and his specific prescriptive suggestions might not be the best ones, but at least he’s engaging with positive atheism rather than wallowing in negative atheism. I’d like to see more atheist thinkers to do the same.

Religion Without God

31 01 2012

Seems everyone is talking about Alain de Botton’s new book. Good. It looks like a worthy tome. I’ve yet to read it (my PhD reading list puts leisure philosophy on the backburner for now), but I intend to soon.

The book, Religion for Atheists, argues that while the supernaturalist claims of religion are false, religion still offers many things that we discard only to our detriment. Happily, it’s a subject about which I have strong and sympathetic feelings. Sadly it’s also the topic of a book I was going to pen post-PhD, but he’s beaten me to it (and likely to have done a far superior job to me anyway).

But it seems not everyone has quite understood de Botton’s core point, as suggested by this quote lifted from the Guardian review by Terry Eagleton:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

What Eagleton has failed to understand is that de Botton is separating the functions of religion from their supernaturalist justifications. And it’s only the latter that he’s calling “bunkum”.

Should free speech and civil rights be justified according to some supernaturalist tradition that suggested they were imperatives thrust upon us by the Man in the Moon, de Botton would likely happily reject the justification, but argue on rational grounds that free speech and civil rights are well worth keeping – for the function they serve in social life. It’s their very “social uses” that makes them not “bunkum”.

This is the core twist of de Botton’s approach, and one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly. We absolutely must separate the function of institutions from their supposed justifications. We must then examine what justifications they might have rationally, and only keep them if they pass rational muster.

Religion’s truck has been to foist many beneficial practices on us, but to justify them with a false metaphysics, assuming it’s the metaphysics rather than the function that is important. Then they overextend and issue more edicts justified by the same bunkum metaphysics, except these ones are harmful to human wellbeing and society. But because religion’s justificatory system is resistant to scrutiny and self-correction (unlike reason and the scientific method, for example), they resist moves to correct their errors.

It’s no surprise, then, that atheists seek to tear down the supernaturalist edifice that causes these social ills. But the militant atheist also doesn’t discriminate between the function and the justification, and so seeks to eliminate the entire system – the good functions with the bad justifications.

Both are wrong.

It’s precisely the approach of de Botton that seeks to investigate those things that are genuinely beneficial to humans wellbeing and to society on rational grounds, and instantiate them, that is the right approach. And it turns out many (but not all) things created by religion can do just that. Why not learn from that in the pursuit of wellbeing and social harmony?

Eagleton fails to understand this argument, and that’s why his criticism is, sadly, little more than a straw man.

The Ethical Project: Measuring Ethical Progress

27 01 2012

In this post, I consider the notion of ethical progress. It follows on from my review of  Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, then my post looking at the evolution of our moral psychology, and a post on moral functionalism.

One of the core themes of Kitcher’s is to chart, and account for, the notion of ethical progress. If we look back on the changes that have occurred in ethics through history and across cultures, is there any thread that we might declare as representing ‘progress’?

Does the move from a draconinan eye-for-an-eye lex talonis code of punishment to more moderate restitution and rehabilitation represent progress? Was emancipation progress? Was expanding womens’ rights progress? We want to say they were. But on what grounds?

This is ostensibly a problem for a naturalistic anti-realist account of morality – one such as Kitcher’s (and my own) – because there are no immutable moral truths (a priori, non-natural and/or divinely mandated) to which we can peg progress; ethical progress can’t simply be likened to scientific progress, where we gain a deeper understanding of ethical truth and then put it into practice.

Kitcher’s response to this problem is, I believe, the correct one. Once we acknowledge that ethics is a human invention which, according to the functionalist rendering, was created to solve the problems of social living (or “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict”, in Kitcher’s version), we can start to make sense of ethical progress.

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The Ethical Project: Functionalism and Disagreement

25 01 2012

In my first post on Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project I outlined his main argument. In the second post I addressed his account of the evolution of our moral psychology, and filled in a few gaps with my own account that I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. In this post I look at moral disagreement and functionalism

People disagree about moral issues. There’s probably no other statement in ethics that is as uncontroversial. But what such disagreement means, and how to resolve it – if it’s resolvable at all – is a hotly contested topic.

But if we take the moral functionalist approach – as espoused by Kitcher, and endorsed by myself in my thesis – then we can gain a crucial insight into the origins, and possible resolutions, of moral disagreement.

Let’s start with some typical disagreements. Person A says lying is always wrong. Person B says lying is sometimes right. Then they argue. We wouldn’t be surprised if one appealed to a moral norm they believe in, such as “do not lie”. Another might suggest that lying is against the will of god. Or they might say that lying causes harm to someone’s autonomy. Or that it reduces the overall happiness, and overall happiness is the greatest good. And on they go.

Note that these are all justifications.

Now, comparing justifications is one way of conducting an ethical debate. But I think the evidence suggests that many of our justifications for our moral norms are spurious. If you don’t happen to believe in moral truths or in a divine moral authority (as I don’t), then you can immediately question appeals to them as a defensible justification.

There is also ample moral psychology research that suggests we are easily confused about the justifications of our moral norms. Jon Haidt’s ‘moral dumbfounding’ and the ubiquitous trolley dilemmas show that people offer a range of different justifications seemingly as post-hoc rationalisations for deeply held intuitions about right and wrong. So it’s not the justifications that are doing the heavy lifting, it’s something else.

You can also see this in many contemporary moral debates – such as over abortion or over the moral status of social welfare – where two interlocutors offer their arguments, and then have them torn to shreds by the other side, but no-one changes their mind. Sigh.

Now, I think there are good justifications for certain moral practices. I’m just sceptical whether the justifications that most people cite in everyday moral discourse actually are the right kind of justifications.

So, to understand moral disagreement – and where it really occurs – we need to look elsewhere. And this is where functionalism comes in.

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The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds

24 01 2012

In my last post I offered my initial review of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, which is a bold attempt to offer a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of ethics, devoid of any divinity or dubious metaphysics. And overall, I’m very pleased with the account – not least because it is largely in sync with my own.

For too long has ethics been dominated by discussions of moral semantics, of naturalistic fallacies, of rational agents and an expectation that once we discover moral truths, people will kick themselves for not having happily obeyed them in the past.

But this is not the only way to talk about morality. Instead of seeing morality as a truth-seeking endeavour, or springing from the will of some deity, we can alternatively look at morality from what Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian and David Wong (2008) call “human ecology”.

Better than defining morality by what it is – i.e. about truth, about happiness, about god’s will etc – we can define morality by what it does. This, at its heart, is the moral functionalist perspective. It’s central to Kitcher’s account (as it is to mine), and I believe it’s key to understanding morality as a natural phenomenon – i.e. a practice enacted by human beings throughout history through to this day.

And once we understand better what morality does, we might gain some insights into what it is, and even how we ought to behave. Thus, shockingly, this descriptive programme might have normative implications.

In this post I explore some of the themes raised in The Ethical Project and add some elements of my own research to fill in some gaps left by Kitcher. I have more to say than will fit in one post, so I’ll add more after this one.

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Review: The Ethical Project

23 01 2012

Pop back in time roughly five million years to the time of the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and you’d likely spot roving troops of creatures not dissimilar to today’s great apes. Yet, while chimpanzees and the rest of our evolutionary cousins have changed relatively little over the last few million years, our species has undergone remarkable change.


Arguably the strongest driving force for this incredible evolutionary change is our uniquely social nature – and our uniquely moral proclivities – to the point where today we interact in a global network of billions of individuals, a network of staggering complexity hinging on levels of cooperation unmatched by any other creature.

And the glue that holds our social and cooperative life together is morality.

It’s in charting and explicating this progression from the earliest forms of pre-moral inclinations to our modern day complex moral deliberations that is the ambitious goal of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project.

And Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, does a remarkable job of not only weaving together a coherent picture from many disparate threads, but also lays down a path for potentially fruitful ethical debate in the future. And he does it all in a thoroughly naturalistic, empirically-aware and refreshingly grounded way, with his method strongly influenced by his commitment to “pragmatic naturalism”, which heavily informed particularly by John Dewey and William James.

He also espouses a theory that is startlingly close to my own PhD thesis, much to my joy and chagrin. Even if there are now a few less revelations in my own thesis, it is deeply heartening to see that I’m not the only one charting an evolutionarily-informed naturalistic account of morality.

That said, there are a few gaps in Kitcher’s account, and a few key details that he overlooks either deliberately or unintentionally. In this post, I’ll outline the main thrust of Kitcher’s argument, and in a subsequent post I’ll provide a more critical review, comparing and contrasting it with my own account.

First, an overview of Kitcher’s argument.

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