About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Genetic editing and the tyranny of opinion" published at Policy Forum

This op-ed piece on the controversy over human genetic editing and CRISPR-Cas9 has gone live today at Policy Forum (a site associated with the Australian National University). Do check it out. I largely welcome the statement that emerged from the Washington DC summit earlier this month. In my opinion, however, it errs on the side of conservatism and caution. The article explains why.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Why I still support Charlie Hebdo" to be anthologised from Melbourne University Press


My Cogito article "Why I still support Charlie Hebdo" has been picked up for republication in Politics, Policy & the Chance of Change: The Conversation Yearbook 2015, edited by John Watson and published by Melbourne University Press. In effect this book is a Year's Best (or at least a year's highlights) anthology of material published by the Australian arm of The Conversation.

Politics, Policy & the Chance of Change will be available within the new few days, and it will receive well-publicised launch events in a number of Australian cities. I'm told there are about 80 authors overall, but at this stage I don't know who they are beyond the fact that the book's cover says it features Michelle Grattan, Thomas Piketty, Glyn Davis, and Sarah Joseph.

As you might expect, I'm pleased and excited to have work in a volume that will gain a high profile in Australia. In all honesty (and with no false modesty), I'm proud of the piece in question - it makes some important points - so I'm pleased that it will now reach a wider audience. My thanks to all involved, not least Tim Dean for inviting me to join the Cogito blog (hosted by The Conversation). Tim's faith in me has been of great benefit to me over the past few years, and it's much appreciated.

All the contributions in the book have, of course, already been published online. Tracking them down would not be straightforward, however, so I'm sure it will be well worth the price.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Clive James on blog-trolls

I do love this coinage by Clive James: blog-trolls. Of course, no one wants to admit to being one of those. We're just adorable and fearless bloggers! Still, we all know the sorts of people he means...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Left's Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (though I am cross-posting at Talking Philosophy). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a "regressive left".

I.

In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society's anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic  of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy.  Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might  be said – for the Enlightenment.

II.

The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture's social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.

III.

As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I've described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.

IV.

If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies' practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.

V.

The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals' evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are. 

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.

VI.

Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”" To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we  will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.

VII.

An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:
One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman's right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?
In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I'll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates. 

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.

VIII.

In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society's practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Richard Garner's back-cover endorsement of The Mystery of Moral Authority


“The mystery of moral authority is that we persist in attributing objective and inescapable authority to moral judgments even though there are so many reasons not to do so. The Mystery of Moral Authority is an accessible, up-to-date, thorough, convincing, and fair-minded attempt to show that the ‘mystery of moral authority’ has not been, and most likely will not be, solved. To solve it one would need to explain the source of the allegedly inescapable objective authority that is commonly thought to characterize moral judgments.
In this book Blackford recommends that we replace the idea of morality as a collection of truths about how we ought to live with the idea that it is a modifiable social technology aimed at finding ways to live in groups. This realization frees us to replace outmoded moral norms with practical ones more appropriate to our present needs and circumstances.”

              Richard Garner, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University, US, and author of Beyond Morality

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Mystery of Moral Authority on Palgrave Macmillan's site

Here! More news to come over the next couple of months as the release date rolls around.

Freedom For the Speech We Oppose

I have a new article at TPM Online: "Freedom for The Speech We Oppose". Check it out!

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Mystery of Moral Authority now available for pre-order

My new book, The Mystery of Moral Authority, is scheduled to appear from Palgrave Pivot toward the end of 2015. It's already available for pre-order from Amazon, if you happen to be interested. Please consider! Or perhaps let your local academic library know.

I've now been consulted about the cover design and the back-cover copy (the latter is mainly a generous and detailed endorsement from Richard Garner, author of Beyond Morality). I expect to see some page proofs soon, so we're at the real business end of the production pipeline.

I'm sure that The Mystery of Moral Authority will be a handsome little monograph. I also think it has an important message, though I suppose I would think that.

I'll provide more news as the book approaches its publication date.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Should there be a Nobel Prize for Philosophy?

I've written an op-ed on this for The Drum. Check it out! (The answer is not as simple as you might think - and I had to cover a lot of territory in 800 words.)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

This is cross-posted on the Talking Philosophy site.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn't expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court's decision doesn't yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it's difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle's exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with "clean hands", in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough - I'm not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he'll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view - which the court also seems to have stated - he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman's views are, as far as I'm concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can't stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It's troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I'm a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there's something that has not been revealed - e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence - it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it's a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left - traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech - now seem to believe that we should be using the state's coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and  keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me - more than ever in the last few days - is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I'm appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to  express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we're going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reposting from 2009 - Geert Wilders wins UK appeal

I'm reposting this from several years ago.

So much time has passed that it would be miraculous if my views had not changed in the slightest - in particular, re the comments on Stein, I am now less comfortable about disinvitations than I once was. Stein's case was fairly special, though, or, rather, I think there is something special about inviting people not merely to give public lectures or take part in debates, but to be commencement or graduation speakers.

In any event, I believe that much of what I say here is still about right. It's also very relevant to some current debates in Australia.

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Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders has won an appeal against the decision of the British Government to exclude him from the country.

While the ruling in Wilders' favour, made by an immigration tribunal, can still be appealed by the British government, this outcome is, for now, an important victory for freedom of speech.

The government's decision, made early this year, was under 2006 regulations that allow the exclusion of individuals who represent:

A genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society.

However, in overturning the government's decision, the tribunal emphasised that the right of freedom of expression was important in a democratic society, even though opinions were expressed in a way that was bound to cause offence. The tribunal said:

Substantial evidence of actual harm would be needed before it would be proper for a government to prevent the expression and discussion of matters that might form the opinions of legislators, policy makers and voters.

As I've said in the past, I doubt that I would like Wilders if I knew him. If he had political power in the Netherlands, he would likely follow extreme and highly undesirable policies. But the immigration tribunal got this case right. Wilders should not be barred from entering liberal democracies such as the UK.

Public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. Technically, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic under contemporary conditions. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with all the immigration formalities.

Yes, Wilders' film, Fitna, does tend to invite hostile attitudes to Islam by juxtaposing verses from the Koran with images relating to acts of terrorism and incitements to violence against infidels and apostates. Wilders has also made other public statements that are likely to provoke hostility and cause offence. It's even possible, I suppose, that somebody might be inspired by Wilders' statements and/or by seeing Fitna to take direct violent action against Muslims. However, I do not believe that Fitna - ambiguous as it is - calls for this or that Wilders has done so elsewhere. Fitna may provoke some generalised hostility, but there is no call for any specific violent act or any class of violent acts.

Millian liberals might ask themselves whether the sorts of principles advocated in On Liberty would justify suppression of Fitna or other attempts to gag Wilders (including the recent efforts to keep him out of the UK). I doubt it.

On a Millian approach, the state would be justified in stopping Geert Wilders from addressing an angry mob and stirring it up to lynch nearby Muslims. But it would not be justified in preventing him from putting his views peacefully to the general population (this includes giving a lecture of the usual kind which is not directed at inciting a riot or a lynching).

In the first case, there's no time to respond to the situation other than by stopping him and dispersing the lynch mob. The state needs to have laws to deal with these situations. In the other case, Wilders' views may be wrong or even dangerous, but they can always be argued against. Individuals who see Fitna, or read about Wilders' ideas, or attend his speeches or lectures are not likely to be caught up in the mentality of a mob. Any individuals who just might be inspired to lawlessness can be deterred in the same way as other individuals who are inspired to lawlessness by anything else that might have the same effect. Thus, this whole situation is remote from the kind of circumstance where Mill would countenance the use of state coercion to stop someone's free speech.

I'm not suggesting that there can never be cases that where the risk of violence is sufficiently high and imminent to justify some kind of coercive action by the state. But Wilders has been in the UK before without stirring up lynchings or riots. He has also spoken in the US - even after he was barred from the UK - and has not stirred up violence. I see no evidence that he has ever crossed the line into the kind of clear incitement that should be cognisable by the law.

Let's be clear: if someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that might be a poor decision, and we might have very good reason to protest to the university administration, as many of us did when such an invitation was extended to Ben Stein not very long ago. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind. People who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. But that does not entail that the state should interfere. I'd be just as quick to defend Stein as I am to defend Wilders, if an attempt were made to exclude him from entry into a foreign country.

When the state starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it tries to keep someone out of the country for nothing more than that, it needs compelling justification. If there is any ambiguity, we should lean towards freedom of speech.

Monday, September 28, 2015

University of Warwick Students' Union backs down over Namazie veto

In some good news, the University of Warwick Students' Union appears to have backed down unequivocally over its earlier decision to no-platform Maryam Namazie. They have indicated in their statement that they'll be apologising to her.

As far as I'm aware, we can take this at face value. That being so, the people who made the latest decision deserve to be commended.

There are more general questions about the circumstances in which it's okay to disinvite or veto (or no-platform) speakers. I'm leaning very heavily against doing so, though there will be extreme situations, and as I've often said I am not an absolutist about such issues. However, the Namazie case illustrates yet again how well-intentioned rules and restrictions can soon become overly broad, and even perverse, in their application by zealots.

Sometimes bad decisions can be reversed, as happened here, but not everyone has the time, energy, resources, and support for the fight.

It's best to subject restrictions such as these to careful and sceptical scrutiny when they are proposed in the first place. It's best, too, to have a bias toward very narrow application of such rules, once they're in place, restricting them as far as possible to extreme, unusual circumstances.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Maryam Namazie no-platformed at the University of Warwick

Maryam Namazie makes an essential point at the end of her chapter in 50 Voices of Disbelief (the book that I co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, published in 2009). It is, she insists, crucially important that we be free to criticise and ridicule religion, including Islam, and particularly political Islam:
Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp posts, it stones people to death—in the twenty-first century—with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.
This is the sort of view that has apparently led to Namazie being no-platformed by the student body at the University of Warwick. But we must be free to put such views.

Maryam Namazie should be able to speak without impediment. She has an important viewpoint that warrants expression and discussion.

More generally, no-platformings and disinvitations have become a plague (and an embarrassment) at universities. Can they ever be justified? Yes, I can think of circumstances where they might be. I'm not an absolutist about this. I can think of one case, several years ago, where I supported a campaign for a disinvitation, and I can't work up too much guilt about it. I.e. it wasn't a bad call in the circumstances applying back then.

But in the social and political environment of 2015, when the whole business of no-platforming and "disinvitation season" has become such a problem, I would be unwilling to muddy the waters and support a disinvitation except if the most exceptional and extreme situation arose (e.g. someone blatantly inciting acts of violence). The priority right now is pretty much - just stop doing this.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Updates to my website and curriculum vitae

I've been updating my personal website, which was overdue for some love and care. Do feel free to check it out, including all the links. There are some good samples of my work on the site, as you'll see. There's also extensive (though incomplete) bibliographical information.

In particular, I've revised and updated my curriculum vitae for anybody who might be interested.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist St├ęphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National - France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right - and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece  published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National - so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister - perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism - but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products - whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines - for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover - much less appreciate - complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt - e.g. in writing posts like this one - where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book review: Polly and the One and Only World, by Don Bredes (warning: some spoilers)

(Spoilers are relatively minor, but you are warned.)

Polly and the One and Only World is a delightful, if sometimes harrowing and emotionally painful, hybrid of science fiction and fantasy, aimed at a Young Adult audience. It is set in the dystopian landscape(s) of a near-future USA wrecked by cataclysmic events that are, perhaps wisely, never quite explained or defined. In this bleak future, the post-collapse remnants of the nation are ruled by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy.

The novel's main character, Polly Lightfoot, is a teenage witch - for, yes, this is a world where pagan magic is real, and the born-again theocrats are engaged throughout in a ruthless, systematic, and quite literal, witch hunt. As the story begins, Polly has been sent from her parents' village in Vermont to what they hope will be the obscurity and safety of her aunt and uncle's home in Orlando, Florida. As eventually becomes clear, she also has a mission: to keep safe a powerful, precious, very rare grimoire. Soon, however, she falls under suspicion and needs to escape. The narrative portrays her efforts to evade capture by emissaries of the Faith and Truth Board, and somehow find her way north across a ruined countryside peopled by slavers, scavengers, and betrayers.

Polly does have the assistance of her familiar: a clever and versatile raven called Balthazar. As she proceeds, she finds other helpers and companions, not all of whom betray her trust - though betrayal is more the default than otherwise in this paranoid, desperate, sadly diminished civilization. In particular, she builds a friendship with another remarkable teenager, Leon, who is the novel's secondary viewpoint character. Leon grows in wisdom and stature as events affect him and he responds to them as bravely as he can. Indeed, his character develops more than Polly's, though to be fair she started out as a resourceful young woman, while he is initially shown as callow and easily bullied.

Polly encounters frustrations (or worse) at every step of her journey, and she finds it almost impossible to make even slight progress. Her quest increasingly seems stillborn and futile, as disasters strike one after another.

Yet Polly never gives up. In addition to the theocrats -  and the many individuals who'd sell out heretics and witches to them - Polly and Leon are opposed by a group of sinister and well-connected cultists, including a corrupt witch who wants the grimoire for herself. The teenage protagonists have enormous odds to overcome, and every step on their path provides a struggle of its own.

Polly and the One and Only World is an unmistakably didactic novel, teaching the values of courage, loyalty, and perseverance. It straightforwardly denounces religious zealots and their inevitable cruelty. This is no mere allegory, since the theocrats of the book's desolate future America are all-too-recognisable descendants of today's Religious Right. As the back-cover blurb suggests, the book is designed to "inspire young readers to appreciate their own freedoms and their own ability, today, to work for positive social and political change."

All of this might be condemned as heavy-handed and simple-minded by opponents of its message. If so, I choose to differ. The narrative is no less absorbing for its obvious moral and political implications, and its lessons emerge naturally from the overall story arc, the page-turning action, and the convincing dialogue between an odd mix of characters. Despite his evident - not to mention urgent - thematic purpose, Brede never gives an impression of merely preaching at us. Instead, Polly and the One and Only World is vividly written and always suspenseful; the story never suffers for the sake of its message.

In particular, Bredes is convincing in the way he depicts the various witches' spells. Although the effects (such as flying or shrinking) are dramatic, they appear realistic, largely through a narrative focus on the details and difficulties involved in working magic. There is much to learn here from the literary craftsmanship of a skilled novelist.

If the book has a fault it lies in the hasty - and perhaps unclear - ending. There is little in the way of closure or explanation, which may, of course, contribute in its own way to Bredes' purposes. The struggles continues, sad to say, as such struggles tend to in ordinary life. At the same time, there's a strong sense of an author setting things up for a possible sequel.

Such cynical thoughts aside, this is a lovely book. I enjoyed it very much, and I'd have delighted in it as a teenager. As a disclaimer, Don Bredes - whom I otherwise don't know at all - contacted me and asked whether I'd like to review Polly and the One and Only World. Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit, given my own oft-stated worries about theocratic government and the ongoing socio-political influence of religion. He was right about that much, but I wouldn't praise his book if it weren't genuinely strong. Bredes has legitimate concerns about his country's future - he is not a mere fearmonger - and he's transmuted them to make a fine, suspenseful story.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New Charlie Hebdo cartoons attract uncharitable responses




It's beyond me how people of good faith could interpret this as anything other than savage satire of European attitudes to refugees from the Middle East. And yet, once again, we see preening, authoritarian busybodies treating Charlie Hebdo in the most uncharitable way, as if, on this occasion, it were making fun of the drowned Syrian child.

Obviously we could debate whether the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons are (in the immediate circumstances) in good taste, whether they might have some perverse psychological effect (i.e. an effect contrary to their artistic purpose), and so on. I doubt, however, that the original French audience would have misunderstood the satirical force of what they saw this week.

The mainstream and social media are, unfortunately, rife with people who will "call out" speeches, cartoons - and many other forms of expression - in the most harsh and simple-minded ways. Some of this must result from a lack of cultural sophistication: an inability to understand such things as irony (sometimes including unstable irony), complexity, artistic convention, and framing. But there is also the disastrous urge to provide signals of tribal righteousness.

[Edit, 20 September: I've now written about this at considerably greater length on the Cogito blog. I'll repost on this site when I have a minute.]

Monday, September 14, 2015

Most Australian voters are not influenced by religion

Russell BlackfordUniversity of Newcastle

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Rationalist Association of New South Wales and the Humanist Society of Queensland has found that only 14 per cent of Australians were influenced by their religious beliefs the last time they voted.

In a press release issued on 9 September 2015, representatives of the two organisations express their doubts about the political strength of the religious vote and the idea that politicians must “live in fear” of it.

Max Wallace, the Vice-President of the Rationalist Association of NSW, said that the results cast doubt on the notion of an influential, across-the-board Christian, or Catholic, first preference vote in Australia. Wallace said, “It does not automatically follow that a majority of Catholics, say, in various electorates, will vote as one for political parties whose policies echo those of the church.”

He added: “I suggest the widespread indifference to religion when voting, squares with what we know about Australians' support for voluntary euthanasia, gay marriage, and their very low, regular church attendance.”

The President of the Humanist Society of Queensland, Ron Williams, said that there might be electorates in Queensland with a statistically significant cohort of evangelicals and Pentecostal voters. These could make a second preference difference in a marginal seat, but that was not certain and would depend on how marginal the seat was.

A breakdown of the survey results shows that 5 per cent of respondents said they were “very much” influenced by their religion, while 9 per said they were “somewhat” influenced.

Another 60 per cent said they were not influenced at all, while 26 per cent said that the question was not applicable to them. Among Catholics, the “not influenced at all” group was 84 per cent. However, there was more indication of influence from Muslims and from Pentecostal, evangelical, and fundamentalist Protestant Christians.

It would be useful to have more data before drawing strong conclusions as to whether there has been any electoral impact from religious views on, for example, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, or abortion rights. I don’t discount the possibility of some impact, since even a small number of votes can make a difference to finely balanced results. At the same time, even people who are influenced by religious beliefs need not feel pushed to oppose (say) euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Some religious voters might, for example, be influenced to support government programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty.

Overall, the survey suggests that religious beliefs play only a minor role in voting at Australian elections. If so, the degree of solicitude shown to the religious lobby by Australian political leaders may be out of proportion to its ability to deliver votes.

At a more philosophical level, it appears that most Australian voters, whether or not they are personally religious, are secular in the sense of supporting secular government. From my viewpoint, that is pleasing news. It suggests that most Australian voters do not embrace a model of politics in which the government chooses the “correct” religion (and religious morality).

The survey data tends to confirm that most religious people in Australia - as well as most nonbelievers - accept the government’s role as one of providing worldly protections and benefits. For most Australians, otherworldly concepts to do with sinning against God, spiritual salvation, and the like, are private matters - they have little, if any, role in secular politics.

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


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Only 14 per cent of Australian voters influenced by religious belief

The figure above comes from a survey conducted on behalf of the Rationalist Association of NSW and the Humanist Society of Queensland. It can be spun in more than one way, of course, but it's still an interesting figure. Clearly, and overwhelming majority of Australians - including those with religious beliefs - are not voting along religious lines.

I'm planning to say a bit more about this over at Cogito.

Edit: Post at Cogito now made. I'll also republish it here when I have a minute.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Mystery of Moral Authority confirmed from Palgrave Pivot

As previously announced, I have a contract with Palgrave Pivot for my monograph on fundamental moral philosophy, The Mystery of Moral Authority. I delivered the manuscript in late June, and I received confirmation yesterday that, following external peer review, it has received a "strong recommendation" for publication.

The book will now go ahead, and if all falls into place it should appear late this year. Palgrave Pivot specialises in producing relatively short and focused academic monographs (this one is about 45,000 words), and it highlights an expedited publication process once a manuscript is accepted. I'll thus be spending the next couple of months taking the book through the pipeline (with copyediting, etc.).

Needless to say, I'm excited by this news. Palgrave Pivot is a respected academic imprint with some very fine authors. The book itself sets out my views on important issues to do with the nature and function of morality, the relationship between morality as an observable social phenomenon and philosophical ethics, the illusions that affect much of our moral practice and language, how we should respond to our awareness of these, and so on. Every book that I write or edit is dear to my heart, but this one perhaps more than most.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” - that is, the leaders of various religious organisations - have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:
  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;
  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and
  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.
Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her - possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death - whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise - can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome - perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful - that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members' views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force - more than the line actually taken by Welby - it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority - intellectual, moral, or otherwise - in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square - they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy - but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound - though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Where microaggressions come from

Yet again, I'm mainly bookmarking an article for future reference. But this piece by Jonathan Haidt looks very interesting, whether I end up agreeing with it all or not.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Currently reading: Philosophy Goes to the Movies, by Chris Falzon

I'm reading the new (third) edition of Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy, by my colleague at the University of Newcastle, Christopher Falzon.

I'm biased to the extent that Chris is not only a colleague - he also comes across in my dealings with him as a smart, always pleasant, and disarmingly modest bloke. With that disclaimer out of the way, this book really is very good. It's impressively erudite, but written with a light touch. It would provide an excellent way to introduce an older teenager to philosophy (especially if he or she also had an interest in cinema), or it would make a great textbook for a foundational course in philosophy at college or university level.