May 7, 2018
The Difficulty of Defending the Humanities

There is a kind of embarrassing silence if one tries to state why philosophy, or the Humanities more generally, have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond the merely instrumental, like getting you into law school. One generally fumbles around in vague generalities that convince no one, speaking of the clarity of analytical thinking, the advantages of critical reflection, or the enjoyments of intellectual thought. But these phrases sound hollow, often even to those who utter them.


April 21, 2018
Intuitions: Moral vs Political

There’s an industry in moral philosophy in the muddy business of digging out intuitions. Imagine, advocates of this industry say, that you hold this-or-that moral principle. Some principle which claims, for example, that you can kill people under these-and-those circumstances. But then there’s an important counterexample. In this-or-that scenario (which is almost always hypothetical), the principle gives the wrong result. The principle “violates our intuitions”. (It’s almost always some very unspecified “we” whose intuitions are violated.) Perhaps, however, if we moved to some slightly alternative moral principle, which slightly changed under which circumstances we can kill, we could explain this case away—the principle would “fit” our intuitions better. But here’s another counterexample which this principle cannot explain! And so the dialectical machinery runs on. Normally, a satisfyingly solution is found within around 20 pages, which happens to be the length of a publishable article.


October 11, 2017
Collective Competence: Some Initial Thoughts

This post expands on themes from a previous series of blog posts, “The Demands of Political Competence”.

No one person knows how to put someone on the moon, but the brilliant minds at NASA, as a collective, do. Similarly, one might suggest, while no one person is politically competent, the electorate as a whole possesses the necessary competence. If this can be established, one might argue, we should worry less, or not at all, about individuals not knowing much about politics, and not being individually competent to make political decisions. After all, we do not think it surprising or troubling that no individual NASA employee knows how to put someone on the moon; what matters is that NASA as a whole can. This analogy provides us with a comforting and appealing way to think about democracy. But is it true?


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.)


February 18, 2017
“Normativity without Cartesian Privilege”

One of the humbling experiences in philosophy is to come across a paper which says what you (perhaps) inchoately thought, but in a much more knowledgeable way than you could have ever said it yourself. This at least was my experience when I read Amia Srinivasan’s “Normativity without Cartesian Privilege”. (Srinivasan also has related paper, co-authored with John Hawthorne, “Disagreement Without Transparency”, which is equally good.) Srinivasan’s argument is complex, but it’s worth trying to understand. Here’s a rough summary.