June 2, 2017
On Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom still takes a regular place on undergraduate reading lists, is placed on lists of intellectually important books, and it still plays the role as a prophetic warning against socialism for many libertarians (see e.g., Glenn Beck). There’s no question that Road to Serfdom has been a historically important book. But like its rough contemporary The Open Society and Its Enemies, it’s a book which hasn’t aged well. The Constitution of Liberty is a much more timeless book, and also the philosophically much more sophisticated one. Here are some scattered observations on the book, and what’s worth reading in Hayek.

(The following is based on notes for teaching, and many of the points I’ll make can be found in secondary literature on Hayek. But the reader might find it useful to have some of it assembled in one place.)

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May 30, 2017
Some Thoughts on Ideal Theory (part 1)

I’ve recently found myself revisiting topics from Gaus’s Tyranny of the Ideal, which I’ve written about here. This is an area where recent literature has exploded. Instead of trying to do justice to the multitude of issues that have arisen in that literature, I’ll approach the topic idiosyncratically to order some of my thoughts.

In particular, I’ll look at the issue through the lens of a relatively simple metaphor. Like all metaphors, it obscures some issues and sheds light on others. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the degree to which it succeeds, but I found worth thinking about.

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May 27, 2017
Some Notes on the Culture Wars

From some perspectives, things are looking bleak for progressive causes. Trump’s presidency, the Brexit campaign, and the various populist right-wing movements across Europe can easily look like an unholy trinity of isolationist nationalism. It seems that politics has taken a sharp turn to the right, however precisely you want to label these changes (the rise of anti-globalism, tribalism, racism, etc.).

I am not going to downplay the importance of these political transformations. There’s little reason to think that these political forces will vanish soon. Indeed, let’s be pessimistic about Trump et al. – assume that various Western democracies will slide into a dysfunctional twilight of continual populist rage for the foreseeable future, and that the political atmosphere will be poisoned by nativist prejudices for perhaps longer than that. Assume that the various “open-minded” political projects – multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, the European Union – are in for a very rough ride, if not totally finished.

Even if this is your outlook for the near political future, I think progressives also have reason for optimism. If you zoom out, historically and socially, I think you will find that while right-wing causes might win various political battles at the moment, the progressives are winning the cultural war – by which I mean the larger social contest for determining the social conventions and evaluative rules by which we’re assessing our society.

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April 29, 2017
A Hundred Days of Incompetence

What political movement is Donald Trump heading? After we’ve seen him a hundred days governing, the answer is still unclear. Many call Trump a populist. But there’s no sign of the wall, the immigration ban seems dead for now, China is not called a currency manipulator, Hillary Clinton is not in prison, and it seems NAFTA is here to stay. Neither, it seems, is economic populism on the menu.

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April 25, 2017
The Ubiquity of Shallow Relativism

The Annoying Dinner Conversation

There’s a repeating social experience I’ve made. It happens during conversation with non-philosophers—say, at a dinner, especially at the Oxford formal dinner table. I explain that I am (or rather, was) doing philosophy—political philosophy even, which to many sounds interesting enough. Conversation then often drifts on to some broadly political topic. But surprisingly often, the conversation takes a turn to debating moral relativism. I’ve had it dozens of times, enough to extrapolate the generic form this conversation takes. (To a lesser degree, it’s a conversation that I’ve had with new undergraduates and undergraduate interviewees.)

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April 7, 2017
“Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

(This review spoilers both the 1995 and 2017 films.)

Ghost in the Shell comes in several instantiations—the original manga, two movies, two anime series, and now the Hollywood movie. The outstandingly best of these is the first movie, also named Ghost in the Shell (1995). The 1995 movie follows an elite Japanese security unit, Section 9, that tracks a mysterious hacker, the Puppetmaster. After a series of dead ends—witnesses who have been “ghost-hacked”, their cyber-brains stripped of their memories and identity—the Puppetmaster presents himself to Section 9 in a cyborg body, claiming to be a computer program that has gained consciousness—a “ghost” in the series’ terminology—on the net, and asks for asylum. The Puppetmaster’s body is whisked away by a competing government agency, Section 6.

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March 26, 2017
The Epistemic Pollution of Racism

I have recently finished Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, on which a similarly named television show is based. The book is a detailed blow-by-blow retelling of the famous court case that exercised America. One theme from the book stuck out to me: how all participants in the case—prosecutors, defendants, jurors, police officers, observers—had to battle with a constant sense of epistemic pollution by racism, and to some degree, celebrity culture.

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March 23, 2017
Reflections on PPE

A recent Guardian long read on the history of PPE—the Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree at Oxford—has made me reflect again on different experiences with the degree. I’ve also read the somewhat unnecessarily detailed “The Poverty of PPE”, written in 1968 by Trevor Pateman. But there are lots of other articles critical of PPE which are useful points of departure.

I have studied Philosophy & Economics as an undergraduate in Germany, at a small, provincial Bavarian university (Bayreuth); and then later I found myself a some-time teacher to Oxford PPE undergraduates. My German course was clearly started as an homage to the enormous success of the Oxford degree, even if curriculum-wise it was far from a copy. (More on that later.) Indeed, PPE is en vogue: it has spawned a variety of copycats across the world, and new programmes continue to crop up. So here are some observations regarding the promise, and shortcomings, of PPE.

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March 9, 2017
No Single Mind Can Capture The Truth

It is clear that none of us can know everything. Especially in politics, the extent of individual ignorance is significant. As I argued in a previous series of posts, I suspect that each of us is simply not competent to decide large-scale political issues. To put this in a slightly pretentious slogan, no single mind can capture the truth. A second observation I have stressed is that people strongly, deeply and reasonably disagree about the truth. Even where we do think we have captured the truth, we seriously disagree over what it is.

It’s useful to think about how these two different observations fit together. In some philosophical quarters, there is optimism that intellectual diversity is a good thing, rather than a disadvantage. The idea is that we all possess a different piece of the truth—disagreement indicates that we need to fit these pieces together. Call this the puzzle metaphor. On the puzzle metaphor, it’s not greatly troubling that we disagree and that no single mind can capture the truth, as long as we are decently cooperating in putting the puzzle pieces together. Disagreement is a challenge, but a surmountable one.

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