Slow Revolution

16 01 2014

Are you happy with the way your country is being run these days? Are you happy with environmental degradation, with the depletion of natural resources and the prospect of climate change? Are you happy with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy? Are you happy with the calibre of political discourse today? Are you happy with your politicians?

There is a better way.

There is a better way.

I’m going to venture a guess and suggest you’re probably not terribly thrilled with many, or even all, of these things. Neither am I.

So what are we going to do about it?

It seems the time is ripe for revolution. The Occupy Wall Street movement called for one. So has Russell Brand. Egypt had one (and is still having one). And with dissatisfaction in government increasing in many developed countries around the world, it’s likely there will be many more itching for one.

But “traditional” revolution is not easy to get going. And even harder to get right. It takes a critical mass of people ready to risk all they have in order to push for something better. This works when the revolutionaries have little to lose, not so well when they covet their widescreen TVs and iPads. It also takes a wave of support to mobilise everyone at once; a trickle of rabble rousers doesn’t a revolution make.

I haven’t much stomach for the kind of fast and loud revolution that people like Brand are calling for. I’m not really the activist type. I’d prefer to think up a snappy slogan than hold one aloft in a crowd. I’d prefer to enact change carefully and methodically than risk it running out of control – which is how revolutions normally go (*cough* Egypt).

So I want to propose an alternative approach to overhauling The System, one that aims to enact the same radical change called for by OWS, Russell Brand and others, but seeks to do so without the pitchforks and guillotines.

I call it Slow Revolution.

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In Defence of Hegel

23 09 2013

Hegel_speechNever thought I’d write a post like this. But it took a politician to cast aspersions against a University of Sydney philosopher of the continental persuasion in our recent election campaign to get me to take real notice of Hegel. And I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen.

I can generally sum up my feelings towards Hegel to date as being a combination of incredulity and abject dismissal. From what I understand of his philosophy – largely gleaned from Bertrand Russell’s adroitly droll treatment in A History of Western Philosophy – Hegel’s main themes are reasonably interesting, if unremarkable. His notion that carving the world up into discreet chunks for contemplation mars the unity of all things – an idea I am more familiar with from Taoism or Madhyamaka – is one to which I am very sympathetic. His other big idea about the intrinsic progressiveness of history is also of interest, even if his argument as to why it is so is almost certainly wrong.

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Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

8 11 2012

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:

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Should Voters Pass a Test Before Voting?

12 09 2012

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So (allegedly) said Winston Churchill. And who’s to disagree?

Exhibit A: the comments to my recent column on the ABC’s Drum, which bemoans that “we have stopped discriminating between argument and sophistry.” Seems few in the comments – even those who appear to agree – attempted to do just that in the spirit of elevating the debate. Instead, it wallowed in the usual name calling and obtuse table thumping. Irony died a little that day.

But what I want to do now is go beyond the call to arms for reasonable people and wonder what to do about the unreasonable ones, given the votes of both are weighted the same.

Often raised in this context is the debate between compulsory versus voluntary voting, such that the disengaged or apathetic are less likely to vote than the engaged and informed.

But I want to sideline that debate for now and get to a more fundamental question of electoral reform: should voters have to pass some kind of test before they qualify to vote?

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Raising the Bar

10 09 2012

To argue or not to argue. That is the question that underpins my latest missive on The Drum about the state of political and public discourse in Australia (and translatable to most other modern liberal democracies), as motivated by Malcolm Turbull’s latest speech.

And when it comes to those who spout sophistry or invective in the guise of a genuine argument, then the best strategy is simply to sideline them. Let’s not waste our energy attempting to battle head on those who have no intention of engaging in rational discourse.

Let’s raise the bar from the rock bottom, and set it at least to the level of demanding reasoned arguments, supported by evidence and devoid of fallacies or spin. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And if someone doesn’t conform to these basic standards, they disqualify themselves from the conversation. They’re only welcome back in when they decide to clear the bar.

What I’m talking about is like issuing a kind of social contract over how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a society. If we’re not happy with the emotional, irrational, biased and deadlocked discourse we have today, we agree that we’re all going to conform to a basic minimal set of rules about how to argue. If someone breaks those rules, they’ve broken the contract and don’t deserve to participate.

All this does mean we need to be better at argument. It might be too late for many of us, but one of the best things we can do to improve the world of the future is to ensure our children don’t fall into the same blather trap that we have today.

As such, the best long term solution is really quite a simple one: we should teach reasoning and critical thinking in school.

Like we all agree that no-one should leave school without being able to read, write and do maths, we should also add the ability to spot logical and argumentative fallacies to that list.

This ought to be core curriculum stuff, because reasoning and critical thinking make everything else easier – and lack thereof makes everything else harder.

Reasoning is hard, we’re not naturally good at it, but we can’t afford to live without it. So let’s teach everyone how to do it better.

The Ethical Project: The Future of Ethics

28 01 2012

This is the last in my series in response to Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project. You can read my initial review, my look at our evolving moral psychology, on moral functionalism, and my last post on ethical progress. In this post I want to sum up my thoughts on Kitcher’s naturalistic programme and make some comments on where to from here.

As is probably apparent from the other posts in this series, I’m very sympathetic with Kitcher’s broad approach to ethics. He calls is naturalistic pragmatism – naturalistic because it doesn’t lean on any non-natural or a priori truths, but on the gritty reality of life in the natural world; pragmatist because of his commitment to a Deweyan picture of philosophy being “reconnected with human life”, and “ethics as growing out of the human social situation”, as well as a Jamesian pragmatic approach to truth (p3).

If I had to give my approach to ethics a label, I’d be quite content to call it pragmatic naturalism.

I thoroughly endorse the notion that ethics is a human invention, a cultural innovation that served the function of solving the problems of social living, thus facilitating greater levels of cooperation. That individual moral norms are best understood as strategies for solving these problems and encouraging prosocial behaviour.

I also dismiss notions of there being moral facts – in the sense of a unique domain of facts that are knowable a priori, and/or non-natural, and/or intrinsically normative, and/or the expressions of a divine will. There is only us, our interests, the dynamics of social living, and the mundane fact that if we want to live socially, and reap the benefits of cooperation, we need to abide by some rules of behaviour lest it all spiral down into mutual defection.

And, as I don’t believe that morality is a special domain, I dismiss the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy as barking up the wrong tree. The kind of special ‘ought’ that is apparently separated from ‘is’ simply doesn’t exist. The simple undefinable moral property of ‘the good’ also doesn’t exist. The fallacies are, well, a fallacy.

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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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