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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February 21, 2017
Updates
  • I have passed my viva, and without corrections as well! Without much further ado, you can have a look at my thesis here. I am likely to write a bit more on the thesis and its genesis in the coming days on this blog, so you might just wait for that post as well.
  • I have also uploaded my paper that got published in Res Publica.
  • A newer version of my teaching portfolio is also now available, in case you wish to get first-hand experience of what my students say about my teaching.
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.

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February 18, 2017
Six Years of Living in Substandard British (Student) Housing

Inevitably, there comes the point where you wish to complain about British plumbing to your fellow Germans or Italians or Romanians behind your hosts’ back. The time-honoured opening move for this conversation is to raise the enigma of the double taps. The British, you see, do not seem to know about mixer taps, insisting instead on two taps, one giving scalding hot water, the other freezing cold. This is one of the few instances in practical life where one solution is simply inferior in any respect—there’s no instance where two taps can do what a mixer tap can’t. Still, one finds separate taps installed even in renovated or modern homes, where neither tradition nor price can justify them.

There’s more wrong with the taps as well. Often the taps have insufficient clearance, both vertically and horizontally, from the wash basin. This means that you must wash your hands by holding them close to, sometimes really pressing them against, the ceramic of the basin. The experience is uncomfortable. Of course you can clean your hands; but it feels awkward, unsatisfying, suboptimal, as if someone slightly incompetent had designed the whole experience.

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February 14, 2017
Three Philosophers on Trump

Bonevac for Trump

We can start with the most straight-forward piece, Daniel Bonevac on why he voted for Trump. (There’s also an earlier piece in the Washington Post, on “what it’s like to be a college professor who supports Trump“.) As Eric Schliesser has previously noted, Bonevac’s Trump is somewhat unrecognizable: Bonevac describes him as a Lockean defender of natural rights and the constitution, an upright supporter of freedom of speech, a fighter for the dispirited and left-behind; claims that Trump peddles racism or crude conspiracy theories, Bonevac suggest, are false or overblown.

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February 9, 2017
Regulating the Marketplace of Ideas

Amongst ways to justify freedom of speech, the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas has often held a central place. The basic thought is simple enough: just as free markets are likely to contribute the most to social and economic progress, so a free market in ideas is most likely to allow us to discover truth.

You might question whether this analogy really works (what’s the “price” of an idea? etc.). But quite independent from these worries, I think that most people who use this metaphor fail to explore what it would fully entail.

Here’s a first problem: a marketplace for ideas would be a truth-conducive market only if there was demand for truth, or at least if truth was the primary feature in ideas that individuals demanded. It’s not at all clear that this is the case. People also demand ideas which comfort them, which rationalise their identity, their grievances, and their self-interest.

Marketplaces, if they work, deliver on what people want. So there’s no guarantee that a working marketplace of ideas is particularly good on delivering the truth. Indeed, that publications like the Daily Mail or Fox News are successful might be a sign that the marketplace of ideas is healthy and thriving.

That’s of course not a knock-down argument. Insofar as some demand is driven by a desire for truth, free competition between ideas in this area might still be the instrumentally best way to achieve truth. (Perhaps you are very optimistic and think this is the case for academia.) But our defence of a free marketplace for ideas has now become importantly conditional: it is under certain conditions and in certain respects that it delivers epistemically valuable results; but where the conditions do not hold, we might have no reason to favour a free marketplace over some other kind of organisation.

The second crucial point is that the analogy cannot at all establish unrestricted freedom of speech. Outside libertarian circles, few people will believe that markets should be totally unregulated. Indeed, a standard liberal (“ordoliberal”) idea is that the state should step in where markets fail. Governments should, for example, reign in monopolies, force companies to internalise external costs, and protect vulnerable market participants from exploitation. Markets in modern economies are free as much as they’re regulated, and most liberals think that this is as it should be.

So there’s no reason to think that we should not also regulate the marketplace of ideas. I’m not sure what precise regulations on free speech we should favour. But invoking the metaphor of the marketplace works very badly if you wish to argue for unrestricted freedom of speech, and in fact may show the precise opposite.

One might reply that there are no natural analogues in the speech case for the reasons why we wish to regulate markets in goods and services—what, for example, could it possibly mean that an idea has external costs? But once you accept that there are few meaningful analogies between real-world markets and the “market” of ideas, it would be better just to drop the analogy altogether.

February 1, 2017
Various Links

These are some terrifying opinion poll numbers about Trump’s immigration ban: 48% of the population, including 82% of Republicans and 44% of Independents, agree with it, while only 41% oppose it. So while it’s fair to call it a controversial policy, it’s also wrong to call it unpopular. (Support/opposition depends a bit on the wording, but the general tendency is clear.)

If you’re like me, then probably all your friends are horrified by Trump’s executive order. But on the basis of these numbers, don’t be too surprised if Trump’s popularity doesn’t take a long-term hit over it. You should also not expect people like Paul Ryan to speak out: Republican representatives might commit electoral suicide if they opposed the ban too loudly, given these numbers.

That’s the (pessimistic) message. Tribalism/nationalism is simply that powerful, and this is easy to underestimate if you come from the liberal-cosmopolitan bubble.

Wilkinson looks at some of the data of who voted for Trump, and he tries to locate this in a wider sociological narrative about cultural change, and a growing economic and cultural divide between American cities and the American countryside. Even if you distrust the broad-brush cultural labels Wilkinson uses to classify different value schemes, he manages to tell a worrying story about the growing divide. Wilkinson’s piece is also full of useful nuggets of information, like this one:

The growing gap in economic output between big cities and the rest of America implies that Republican-leaning counties account for a dwindling share of the national product. According to Muro and Lui, in the 2000 election, which also featured a split in the popular and electoral votes, Bush won 2397 counties, accounting for 46% of GDP, while Gore won 659 counties accounting for 54% of GDP. In the 2016 election, the general pattern repeats: the Republican candidate wins many many more counties responsible for a smaller share of American economic output, but the asymmetry has become even crazier. Clinton took just 472 counties, which account for 64% of GDP, while Trump took 2584, which account for just 36% of GDP.  That’s amazing.

Amazing indeed.

A short piece in which Horwitz suggests that libertarians should pay more attention to the badness of Trump, and the structural damage he is likely to cause to the American constitutional system.

Frum’s argument is long and full of insights, so I won’t summarise it. But here’s one particularly challenging passage:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead.

“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.

Frum suggests that gradually “backsliding democracies” like Hungary and Venezuela provide a good comparative model to predict a possible American future (rather than somewhat hyperbolic comparisons with fascism). On this scenario, we won’t see the outright abandonment of the American institutional system—e.g., separation of powers, a free press—but rather a successive hollowing-out of the conventions that underlie the system. If this is true, then some of the main damage Trump could do might have already occurred,  by crossing many of the invisible conventions that buttress a healthy democracy—e.g., transparency in one’s financial dealings, a broad commitment to the truth, and openness to media criticism. Highly recommended reading.

A no-nonsense summary of how Russian propaganda works, supported by observations from psychology of common weaknesses in information processing. The application to Trump-style “alternative facts” propaganda isn’t raised in the piece, but should be obvious. Paul and Matthews explain many less obvious characteristics of propaganda—e.g., that propagandists don’t seem to care about contradicting themselves, and why propaganda emphasises quantity and repetition.

January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 6)

Democracy without Individual Competence

If what I have argued is true, then being politically competent is highly demanding. Voters would need significant amounts of background knowledge, intellectual skill, moral impartiality, and access to reliable information to make competent political decisions. Only a tiny sliver of the population would count as politically competent.

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