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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, December 28, 2007

My friends are still left-libertarians


Note that I (the red dot) am quite moderate by the standards of this group; in fact, you can see why I sometimes feel like a nasty right-winger on economic issues. Fortunately, there are a few who are slightly closer than me to the left-right centre line. Even on social issues, where I am definitely pictured as a libertarian, my views are not all that extreme by the group's standards.

Without dobbing in individuals, I'll just say that (perhaps surprisingly? I'm not sure), a couple of the people who came out to the north-east of me, i.e. closer to the centre of the graph, are famous figures in the transhumanist movement.

Actually, this picture suggests a bit of a danger. The positions taken by these people, including me, are obviously not at all typical of the wider community. That doesn't mean we're wrong, just that if we all hang around with people like ourselves all the time we run a risk of losing touch with what the punters think and feel.

Edit: Image updated to 13 January. I also added a little image with just the cloud of dots and not the distracting numbers.

Church and state - at least somebody gets it

Well, two people.

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle about church and state in the pages of The Australian in the past few days, but it was summed up well in yesterday's edition by a letter headed "Separation of church and state are essential to democracy", attributed to Rod and Annabel Crook of Sandy Bay, Tasmania.

The letter points out that, over the long history of religious and other conflicts, democratic political institutions developed, and came to see a separation of religion from the power of the state as essential. Democracies have solved religious conflict by embracing the idea of equal citizenship for all regardless of differences in religious and moral belief, opinion, and practice. This solution requires toleration of such differences and a willingness not to impose practices on others that are deeply unacceptable to them. In a modern pluralist society such as Australia, we have a wide range of religious and moral views in the community, and governments should not be so unwise as to impose a particular view on all, forcing many people to live in ways that they cannot accept.

It follows, for example, that we should be reluctant to compel abortions (even in circumstances where the state's bureacrats, or an electoral majority, would consider them wise) or to criminalise them (even though some people consider abortion to be morally equivalent to murder, and they may sometimes be in the electoral majority). Likewise with euthanasia and many other issues.

This analysis is exactly right. Of course, commitment to such an ideal embodies some beliefs - e.g., that there is value in the political ideas of liberty, tolerance, equal citizenship, and the rule of law. But those distinctively political beliefs are accessible to people from a wide range of comprehensive worldviews.

Unfortunately, some comprehensive worldviews really may be incompatible with modern political ideas. That seems to be the case with extreme, politicised versions of Islam (but I am not at all convinced that Islam itself lacks the resources to embrace liberalism and modernity). It also applies to the dogma espoused by the Catholic Church's ultra-conservative leadership, but not to most ordinary Catholics, who are tolerant enough in my experience.

Certainly, there are folk in the community (such as those to whom the letter responded) who want to have things all their own way, and are willing to bring their particular sectarian views to the table of political debate, with the aim of imposing them through the coercive power of the state. By modern political standards, that is unreasonable and intolerant.

Such people ought to be given short shrift in public debate. They can say what they want, of course, but unless they can translate their views into adequate secular terms the rest of don't have to listen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Faith versus morality

Sam Harris puts this so well. Here's a quote for the day:

"Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain activities cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting non-violent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc.). This inversion of priorities not only victimises innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics."

What a lovely summary of the religious morality of misery. Harris is supremely quotable on subjects like this.

To be fair, what faith can do, sometimes, is motivate people to take action that we can all applaud: I'm happy, for example, when religious institutions devote their efforts and resources to looking after the needy.

But whenever we see a specifically religious morality in action, it is likely to be doing something deplorable. The trouble is that specifically religious moralities tend to do two things that are dangerous to moral health: first, they tend to preserve the mores of less enlightened eras, and to treat these as if they were timeless truths; second, they tend to explain whatever is good about morality in general, such as its responsiveness to suffering, on a false basis. As a result, a great deal of whatever is kind and generous in the human spirit is twisted and shriveled when touched by religious faith.

Monday, December 24, 2007

New Year's resolution time getting close

What are your resolutions for next year? I don't think there are too many things that I have control over and can do differently. Obviously, I have a thesis to finish, and I'll just say that I have some big projects that may be in the wings when that's done. But what about things that are more in my own hands?

Well, there's the usual. Over the last long summer break, I managed to take off 15 pounds, or close to it - with great effort, because I was a long way from, like, obese. Since then, I've put back 5 of those pounds. At six foot and 180 pounds, I'm not doing too badly for a middle-aged man, but I'd like to get those 5 pounds off, plus some more. I'd be happier at, say, 170 pounds.

The other thing that comes immediately to mind is that I must finally master PowerPoint, something I've been avoiding for years. I've given many PowerPoint presentations, but I've resisted learning how to put them together myself - back in my city-law-firm period I always had plenty of secretarial help, but it's completely different in academia where I'm currently located. So it's time that I actually learned how to drive PowerPoint, since there's always pressure to use it.

Oh, here's another thing: time to catch up a bit with my mainstream literary reading, and not just my reading in science fiction and fantasy. I'm sort of letting a good grounding in Eng. lit. go to waste at the moment.

That's all that comes to mind for now, but I have a week to think about it. How about you?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Surveillance, privacy, and existential risk

Many of us are horrified by the idea that what we read, what substances (even legal ones) we ingest, who might enter our bedrooms from time to time (even in the most non-sexual circumstances), what odd hobbies we might have ... and on and on ... might be increasingly knowable by our governments, our police forces, or even our neighbours. If we feel that horror, we may be glad of the big-city anonymity that allows us much greater control of how much these things are known about us, and by whom, than was ever possible in small communities. We may want to fight new methods by which governments obtain practical power to snoop on us, collate information, create profiles of our tastes, activities, and thoughts. Even if we trust our current governments - but let's face it, who does? - what about some future government that has a more aggressive agenda of monitoring and controlling its citizens?

This should make it a no-brainer to oppose new kinds of surveillance. But here's the rub. Whether we like it or not, there's a significant possibility that near-future technological advances will increasingly place destructive power in the hands even of small groups of people, even small groups whose members are not immensely rich. If that's the way it turns out, this will intensify the current pressures for more and more surveillance and monitoring of citizens.

I don't especially like this, and I'm not necessarily going to accept it without resistance.

However, whether we accept surveillance creep or not, we can try to agree on one important point. As time goes on, we need more than procedural safeguards against the rising panopticon. Even more important is the need for a society of increased tolerance.

If higher levels of surveillance are likely, perhaps irresistible in the longer term, it is all the more reason to press for a social and legal ethos of far greater tolerance of activities that are not significantly harmful.

This entails a shift in values, away from moralism and paternalism to a more narrowly-focused concern with secular harm to others, especially with harmful actions that might cause destruction on a large scale. Arguably, that kind of shift was taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has not continued evenly since. To some extent, it has actually been reversed. A great deal of sententious moralism has been creeping back into public policy and the law.

With that in mind, we need a transvaluation of values, though not of the sort that Nietzsche demanded. We need to become more tolerant of differences over relatively harmless things and more focused on possibilities of great harm. This should involve scepticism about moral panics and the kneejerk legislation that often results.

So let's have no more laws against well-known social drugs, reproductive or therapeutic cloning, "sodomy", images of scantily-clad people, collecting antiques ... or whatever the latest moral bugbear might be. Let's make absolutely sure that any new forms of surveillance or monitoring that do get developed - perhaps over our vehement protests - are not abused by being used collaterally to catch people for unimportant things. Where such laws exist, let's roll them back.

Surely we can all agree on a simple message: Western societies must stop worrying disproportionally about minor risks and problems, while refocusing on the identification of major risks (involving large-scale destruction) and on what to do about them.

This link is not often made in the press and other media, but it ought to be. The point is true, important, and becoming more and more timely.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Computer-enabled sketching



Here's something that Facebook lets you do. I quite like these sketches. I just sent a whole set of them to the two people depicted here, as a supplementary Christmas present.

Edit: Jenny always has a drink in her hand. :)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The new TV show from FOX, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, has received a lot of coverage on the net already, even though it won't be premiering until mid-January.

Before I get too many inquiries, I have nothing to do with this show. I'll certainly be interested to see how it compares with my YA/adult-crossover trilogy Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles. If any of my original ideas in the trilogy are adapted, I'll feel flattered, but if anyone thinks I'll be making a big fuss about that (one way or the other) ... well, it doesn't work that way when you're doing tie-in work for media franchises like The Terminator. First, it's often hard in retrospect to identify the provenance of particular ideas among publishers, editors, writers, the creators of the original works, and so on. So while I'm quite proud of my trilogy, I'm certainly not a prima donna about its contents. Second, I have quite limited rights anyway. Whoever owns the intellectual property in the characters is entitled to draw on ideas from all the other people who have worked for the franchise, including little me.

So I'll just be enjoying the show, whenever I end up seeing it. But if anyone sees The Sarah Connor Chronicles before I do, and if it does adapt any of the cool details from my trilogy, make a note of it and drop me a line. As I say, I'll simply be flattered if any of my ideas make it to the TV screen. It was a lot of fun getting to play with these toys - and I do have a special love for the character of Sarah Connor, whose dialogue and action I enjoyed writing for the trilogy - but, of course, they don't belong to me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

All my friends are left-libertarians

Well, at least that's the trend so far with my "cloud of friends" on Facebook.

As for me, I'm not surprised to find myself right there in the middle of them, though I came out as more economically left than I used to. Then again, I can do the political compass thing a million times, giving answers that vary a bit with my mood, and I always end up in that left-libertarian quadrant: sometimes I'm a bit closer to the center economically; sometimes my social libertarianism score varies slightly; but I'm always very libertarian, socially, and always slightly left of centre, economically.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Family worries

I just want to announce that I will have little energy for this blog for the immediate future. Expect my posts to be brief, though hopefully they will still be interesting enough to keep people reading.

The fact is that my mother is currently in hospital, gravely ill. She was admitted nine days ago, but she has been very sick with a number of problems for the past year. I've just spent a few days interstate, staying at my sister's place, and I think that family worries are going to be my main priority for some time. I also have other responsibilities over the summer break, notably a thesis to finish off and some minor academic duties (just some marking, I think).

Fortunately, I'm not working in a full-time job but more living by my wits ... so I have quite a lot of flexibility, at least outside of the teaching semesters. But writing articles, long blog posts, and the like will have to take a fairly low priority for now.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New article in Colloquy

My article "Rendezvous with Utopia: Two Versions of the Future in the Rama Novels" (about Arthur C. Clarke's award-winning novel Rendezvous with Rama and its less illustrious sequels) has now been published in the on-line journal Colloquy.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Congratulations to Ronny Restrepo and Thomas Hendrey

These guys - both of them regular readers/commenters at this blog - have turned in fantastic performances this year in philosophy at Monash.

To both of you, congratulations on your results.

I'm not sure how many others of my students or former students ever read this. Stuart? Anyone else? I hope anyone else in that category has had a happy outcome now that results have been published.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Blog break!


I'll be back in a bit over a week. Continue the conversation without me.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

More of the same from Somerville - back to the Endarkenment


I'm 90 pages into Margaret Somerville's new book, The Ethical Imagination. So far, I don't think she has said anything of real substance: rhetorical questions here; flowery metaphors there; inflated rhetoric of other kinds somewhere else, or in the same places; inaccurate descriptions of positions in moral philosophy all through the text. Thankfully, this book is shortish. I guess I'll say more when I get further into it or reach the end.

Edit: Okay, I'm now 200 pages in. It's not getting any better. The argumentation is incredibly weak and the whole approach to ethical and legal philosophy incredibly silly. Also, it does not add much to The Ethical Canary, except for a thin discussion of transhumanism. Unfortunately, I won't have time to write properly about this book before going away for a week. Later!

By the way, I love this sculpture.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wikipedia vandalism - a happy story

Someone at an anonymous IP address vandalised the Wikipedia article on "Russell Blackford" not long ago, deleting some text and claiming that the distinguished writer blah, blah in question is HIV-positive - which I can assure anyone who has an interest in the matter that I am not. :)

You'll be pleased to know that the vandalism was reverted out (not by me - I knew nothing about it) in one minute. So that's a happy story of Wikipedia dealing quickly and effectively with its vandals.