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).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Blog break

I've enjoyed revitalising this blog lately, and my stats are now back to where they were in 2010/2011 at their previous peak (whatever those stats really mean; I have no idea how many actual human beings are reading). Alas, I need to take a break from blogging here for at least the next month or so. I have some tight deadlines on big projects, and while I've spent much of this year immersed in research I'm now trying to hit the ground running with actually producing copy. I also have smaller things that need to be done and give me enough distractions from the big projects. With any luck, I may have a productive September and feel by the end of it that things are under control. Farewell until then!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?"

This article, "Lawrence v. Texas: A Right to Personal Freedom?" , was first published in Quadrant back in 2003, shortly after the US Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. The effect was not only to make all laws banning homosexual conduct unconstitutional (and so ineffective) in the US; beyond that, it implies a very wide area of sexual privacy and freedom in highly personal matters. Within that area, the law can't be permitted to intervene. Since I'm something of a libertarian in this respect (though I am not a political libertarian in the sense of being opposed to taxes and the welfare state), the outcome was very welcome to me. Of course, it applies only to the US, but what happens there can affect legal and cultural trends far more broadly.

At the same time, I can't help but be bemused at some of the ways in which US constitutional law has developed over the past 50 to 100 years (and to some extent even beyond). The Supreme Court has tended to find a lot more in the US Constitution than is explicitly stated there, including a wide range of "unenumerated rights" - rights that are never stated but are somehow implicit. This approach to constitutional interpretation can't be ruled out entirely, since much in any document must be taken to go without saying or the document would make no sense, or at least not its obvious sense. For example, it seems fair enough to find it implicit in a democratic constitution that there will be no political censorship, even if no such provision (or any provision on free speech) appears explicitly. But how far can such a process of interpretation go? Surely we can't read in just anything (whether it is an unstated right or an unstated restriction on an explicit right) that seems to the courts to be good policy at the time.

On the gripping hand, Lawrence v. Texas does seem to be correctly decided, given the line of cases that it relies on. Constitutional courts need to make sense of the entire body of legal materials relevant to a case, especially past precedents. Even if I thought that US constitutional law went off the track at some point, a time comes when the body of interpretations adopted by the highest courts is sufficiently dense, consistent, and accepted by the society as a whole that there is no turning back. The US seems to have reached that point long ago with the idea of constitutional protection of sexual privacy and a broad area of freedom in personal matters. As you might expect, I'd hope that something like this would operate as a political principle even in a society where the principle is not regarded as constitutionally entrenched.

This article may also be the first time that I commented publicly (and presciently) on same-sex marriage. I say:
Again, some argument may be put forward in future constitutional cases to retain prohibitions on gay marriages. If, however, no sufficiently compelling argument can be found, what is lost? It seems oppressive and unjustifiable that social and sexual partnerships between gay men or lesbians cannot have the same formal recognition by the state (and the same legal privileges and responsibilities) as heterosexual relationships, if that is the wish of the individuals involved. If the law in the U.S. evolves to reflect this, much is actually gained. This now seems to be the legal position in Canada: Halpern v. Toronto (2003). It does not portend the doom of Canadian society.
Amen!

A useful piece on "trigger warnings"

I found this piece via Brian Leiter's site, so a hat tip to him. Published in Inside Higher Ed in May 2014, "Trigger Warnings Are Flawed" sets out the legal, psychological, and pedagogical problems with a policy of issuing trigger warnings for potentially confrontational materials. My own sense of it, as someone who has done quite a lot of teaching at university level in Eng. Lit. and Philosophy, is that an attempt to warn students systematically of even the most obviously potentially "triggering" material would tie teachers in at least those subjects (and certainly Law, and probably History) in knots. It doesn't follow that we need to take harsh attitudes to students who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but as the authors describe there are more effective and professional ways for universities to handle this. I don't necessarily agree with all the points and assumptions made in the last few paragraphs, but universities have great resources available to them, some of which should be (and in my experience are) directed at supporting students with mental health problems.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) at the box office - a reality check

I didn't see the new Ghostbusters movie (and I probably won't bother until it comes to free-to-air television) for the single, simple reason that its trailer didn't hook me. Sorry.

There's been much media discussion as to whether failing to see Ghostbusters - or not liking it if you do see it - somehow makes you a bad (perhaps politically suspect) person. In reaction, there's been much crowing in some quarters about its failure at the box office.

Well yes, it has been something of a failure at the box office, but a reality check is needed here. On a budget of $144 million it has made over $124 million in the American domestic market. It has made an additional $84 million in "foreign" markets, adding to $208 million so far. It's still being shown in cinemas, so its first-release global cumulative result may end up being around $220 million. Some earnings may not yet have been reported; but otherwise, even $220 mill. may be out of reach.

That's certainly too low for a movie with such a budget. It's undoubtedly disappointing to the studios involved. But it's far from the worst result in recent times. Compare, say, last year's disastrous Fantastic Four. Let's not even think about how the new Ben Hur is going. Because it has failed mainly in the foreign markets, where the profit percentage for studios on the box office is lower than in the US, Ghostbusters has arguably done about as well, overall, as Alice Through the Looking Glass ($294.5 milllion globally, but only $77 million of it in the domestic market, on a budget of $170 million).

Of course, so many factors go into the profit and loss on these movies that it is difficult to know in any specific case what is needed for one of them to make an eventual profit. One estimate that I read for Ghostbusters was $300 million globally to break even, though I have also seen a claim that the studio thinks this figure is too high. A blockbuster movie may have received all sorts of subsidies and deals that we don't know about, it will have associated merchandising, there can be theme park attractions tied in, novels and comics tied in, and on and on. It will eventually go to Blu-ray and DVD, and there will be television rights. It can also attract interest in other movies belonging to the franchise, acting as an advertisement to gain them more Blu-ray sales, more television broadcasting, more rentals, and so on. As studio executives have been pointing out, this all affects the bottom line of whether the effort was worth it. On the minus side, advertising costs can be as high as actual production costs.

My rough rule of thumb is that a big-budget Hollywood movie probably needs to make at least twice its production budget in its global total... but that is very rough.

In all, Ghostbusters has seemingly been a commercial failure - significantly enough to make a sequel unlikely any time soon - but not a total commercial disaster. Many big-budget movies end up like that. To some extent, it's a crap shoot for the studios when they invest large sums of money.

As for where it all went wrong, note again the American-versus-foreign box office. The performance in the domestic market is really not all that bad. Many big budget movies fall below their budget figure with their American box-office earnings, but make up for it somewhat with good takings in foreign markets. When you dig into the foreign figures for Ghostbusters, it also doesn't seem to have done all that badly in other English-language markets. Its big problem to date has been its very poor performance in non-English-speaking markets.

Compare X-Men: Apocalypse. In the domestic market it made "only" $155.5 million on a budget of $178 million. That's not good, though again it's probably not disastrous. The negative reaction of the critics doubtless kept attendances down, as, no doubt did certain perceived weaknesses (much as I loved this movie). But anyway, it's comparable to Ghostbusters' American performance, considering their respective budgets. It's not all that bad.

However, unlike GhostbustersX-Men: Apocalypse performed credibly in foreign markets. It clawed in $120 million in China alone, and it looks as if it's going about as well as can be expected in Japan, where it's still playing. So far it has over $385 million from the foreign markets, and its eventual global total will be close to or around $545 million. That's surely a disappointment for Fox, but probably only a minor one; it will be some two-and-a-half times what Ghostbusters eventually makes globally.

So, here's a big difference. X-Men: Apocalypse made that large figure that I mentioned in China, while Ghostbusters was actually banned in China (the authorities there don't like ghosts) and so made nothing. Again, Ghostbusters pretty much failed in large markets such as Russia and Brazil. It is currently going head to head with X-Men: Apocalypse in Japan. The X-Men are not all that big in Japan, so there may not be that much difference in how the two movies perform there when their runs are over, but X-Men: Apocalypse should eventually get $10 million. Overall, the X-Men and their battles have translated pretty well, yet again, to the Asian markets in particular.

The significant failure of Ghostbusters stems from a combination of somewhat disappointing (but not in themselves disastrous) results in the domestic market, lack of access to China, and the (seeming) fact that its humour doesn't translate well outside of English-speaking countries. That's a prosaic explanation, but it seems about right to me.


[All figures in US dollars, of course.]

Hugo Awards 2016 - and, alas, a bit about the Puppies

The 2016 Hugo Awards were decided last Saturday, 20 August. Congratulations to the winners! I've taken far less interest in the awards than I did last year (in particular, for last year, see here and especially my summation here). Many people are still beating to death the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies angle on the Hugo Awards, but as far as I am concerned the "Puppies" are a spent force. Continuing to go on about them now is more like virtue signalling than making a genuine contribution to debate within the SF community. I'll say something brief and then leave it.

I wish the Puppies would go away, frankly, which hasn't happened. I previously said (see the above links): "I repeat my hope that the Sad Puppies campaign will not take place next year [i.e. in 2016], at least in anything like the same form. If it does, my attitude will definitely harden. I've been rather mild about the Sad Puppies affair compared to many others in SF fandom, and I think I can justify that, but enough is enough."

Well, the Puppies did have some influence, again, on what works were nominated: see especially items associated with Castalia House. However, that's not necessarily such a terrible thing in itself. They are entitled to champion work that they consider valuable, as others have always done.

But there was far less of a sense than last year of meretricious work getting on the ballot merely from knee-jerk, politicized Puppy support, or that high-quality work was being driven off the ballot. The exception is "Best Related Work" - which was a mess once again.

As for the outcomes, the Puppies had no real success in obtaining awards for their favourite works and authors (this was also the case last year). All in all, the form of the campaign was less virulent, this time round, and except for "Best Related Work", the consequences were less destructive.

I still say this: if the Puppies think that good work by politically conservative authors is overlooked in the Hugo process - or if they think the composition of delegates at World Science Fiction Conventions is biased against conservative authors - they need to make the case rationally (or they can organise their own conventions!). At the same time, the rest of us in the SF community can take some blame if we didn't take part in nominations or if we didn't nominate worthy titles for "Best Related Work". Plenty of good commentary and criticism related to SF was published in 2015. Why didn't enough of us nominate it?
Best Novel (2,903 final ballots, 3695 nominating ballots)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
Best Novella (2,903 final ballots, 2416 nominating ballots)
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
  • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
  • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)
  • Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
  • The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Best Novelette (2,560 final ballots, 1975 nominating ballots)
  • “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)
  • “Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
  • No Award
  • “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
  • “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
Best Short Story (2,706 final ballots, 2451 nominating ballots)
  • “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)
  • No Award
  • Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)
  • “Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
  • “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
  • “If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)
Best Related Work (2,545 final ballots, 2080 nominating ballots)
  • No Award
  • Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini (Castalia House)
  • “The Story of Moira Greyland” by Moira Greyland (askthebigot.com)
  • “The First Draft of My Appendix N Book” by Jeffro Johnson (jeffro.wordpress.com)
  • “Safe Space as Rape Room” by Daniel Eness (castaliahouse.com)
  • SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day (Castalia House)
Best Graphic Story (2,171 final ballots, 1838 nominating ballots)
  • The Sandman: Overture written by Neil Gaiman, art by J.H. Williams III (Vertigo)
  • No Award
  • Invisible Republic Vol 1 written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, art by Gabriel Hardman (Image Comics)
  • The Divine written by Boaz Lavie, art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka (First Second)
  • Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com)
  • Erin Dies Alone written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (2,171 final ballots, 2904 nominating ballots)
  • The Martian screenplay by Drew Goddard, directed by Ridley Scott (Scott Free Productions; Kinberg Genre; TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris, directed by George Miller (Village Roadshow Pictures; Kennedy Miller Mitchell; RatPac-Dune Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, directed by J.J. Abrams (Lucasfilm Ltd.; Bad Robot Productions; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
  • Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland (Film4; DNA Films; Universal Pictures)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron written and directed by Joss Whedon (Marvel Studios; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (2,423 final ballots, 2219 nominating ballots)
  • Jessica Jones: “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer (Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions;Netflix)
  • Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay (BBC Television)
  • Grimm: “Headache” written by Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, directed by Jim Kouf (Universal Television; GK Productions; Hazy Mills Productions; Open 4 Business Productions; NBCUniversal Television Distribution)
  • No Award
  • Supernatural: “Just My Imagination” written by Jenny Klein, directed by Richard Speight Jr. (Kripke Enterprises; Wonderland Sound and Vision; Warner Bros. Television)
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: “The Cutie Map” Parts 1 and 2 written by Scott Sonneborn, M.A. Larson, and Meghan McCarthy, directed by Jayson Thiessen and Jim Miller (DHX Media/Vancouver; Hasbro Studios)
Best Editor, Short Form (2,257 final ballots, 1891 nominating ballots)
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Sheila Williams
  • Neil Clarke
  • John Joseph Adams
  • No Award
  • Jerry Pournelle
Best Editor, Long Form (2,386 final ballots, 1764 nominating ballots)
  • Sheila E. Gilbert
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • No Award
  • Toni Weisskopf
  • Jim Minz
  • Vox Day
Best Professional Artist (1,907 final ballots, 1481 nominating ballots)
  • Abigail Larson
  • No Award
  • Michal Karcz
  • Larry Elmore
  • Larry Rostant
  • Lars Braad Andersen
Best Semiprozine (2,063 final ballots, 1457 nominating ballots)
  • Uncanny Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
  • Strange Horizons edited by Catherine Krahe, Julia Rios, A. J. Odasso, Vanessa Rose Phin, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons staff
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies edited by Scott H. Andrews
  • No Award
  • Daily Science Fiction edited by Michele-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden
  • Sci Phi Journal edited by Jason Rennie
Best Fanzine (2,281 final ballots, 1455 nominating ballots)
  • File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
  • Lady Business edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan
  • No Award
  • Tangent Online edited by Dave Truesdale
  • Superversive SF edited by Jason Rennie
  • Castalia House Blog edited by Jeffro Johnson
Best Fancast (1,497 final ballots, 1267 nominating ballots)
  • No Award
  • Tales to Terrify, Stephen Kilpatrick
  • The Rageaholic, RazörFist
  • 8-4 Play, Mark MacDonald, John Ricciardi, Hiroko Minamoto, and Justin Epperson
  • Cane and Rinse, Cane and Rinse
  • HelloGreedo, HelloGreedo
Best Fan Writer (1,909 final ballots, 1568 nominating ballots)
  • Mike Glyer
  • No Award
  • Jeffro Johnson
  • Morgan Holmes
  • Shamus Young
  • Douglas Ernst
Best Fan Artist (1,855 final ballots, 1073 nominating ballots)
  • Steve Stiles
  • No Award
  • Christian Quinot
  • Matthew Callahan
  • Kukuruyo
  • disse86
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (2,406 final ballots, 1922 nominating ballots)
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2014 or 2015, sponsored by Dell Magazines. (Not a Hugo Award, but administered along with the Hugo Awards.)
  • Andy Weir *
  • Alyssa Wong *
  • No Award
  • Pierce Brown *
  • Sebastien de Castell *
  • Brian Niemeier
* Finalists in their 2nd year of eligibility.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Back in Newcastle!

I'm back! I had a great week-long trip to Melbourne, and managed to catch up with lots of dear friends (no need to list to them - they know who they are). Jenny and I seem to have brought back some Melbourne weather, dammit; and as the afternoon goes on today, a sniffle that I had on the road is turning into a nasty cold. I think I might have to take this evening off. But - oh well! - it was great to see so many of my best buddies. Pity I couldn't have stayed a bit longer and caught up with even more friends and colleagues, but you can't do everything. Onward!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - Magneto and Rachel Grey invade Attilan

I just plain like this panel, with art by Andrea Broccardo, from "Civil War II: X-Men 3" - in the current X-Men tie-in series to the current Civil War II series from Marvel. Here, Magneto and Rachel Grey take it on themselves to invade Attilan, home of the Inhumans.

Magneto is now more an anti-hero than an outright villain, and Rachel is not really villainous even though she has a mean streak. But they'll do for today's purpose.

[If you're not a fan of all the arcane X-Men continuity, you need to know that Rachel Grey is the time-travelling daughter of Jean Grey and Cyclops, from a dystopian future. She has a similar set of powers to her mother, but something of an edgier personality, having endured a future Holocaust-like situation. Magneto is, of course, in the comics, a Holocaust survivor who has been rejuvenated to his physical prime. I like the fact that Cullen Bunn, the writer of the tie-in series, has delved into old continuity to recall that these two always got along. The decades of layered continuity inevitably mean that casual comics readers will find a lot of stuff puzzling ... like why Rachel Grey seems older than the current version of Jean Grey running around. But oh well... Meanwhile, I simply like this well-composed, classic style panel.]

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - Celebrating the demise of Gawker

With Gawker having finally been destroyed this week, here is a link to my ABC Religion and Ethics Portal article on the subject of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit. Published back in June, the piece is entitled "Threat to Free Speech? Why I Don't Stand with Gawker."

A large sample:
Governments can restrict the exchange of opinions and ideas, and they frequently strive to do so. Agencies of the State wield frightening powers, including the power to imprison and sometimes even the power to kill, and this should make us especially anxious to keep them under control through public sentiment, constitutional restrictions, and whatever other effective means we can find. We should be very wary of government censorship.

In fact, I go further in opposing campaigns to suppress opinion and discussion through the use of "merely" social power. Boycotts, public shamings, the practice no-platforming speakers and campaigns to have individuals fired for their opinions can all be used to disrupt even quite powerful opponents. Worse, they can intimidate less-powerful opponents into silence.

Perhaps these tactics cannot be prohibited by law: we may run into unwanted paradoxes if we try to ban certain kinds of speech - such as calls for boycotts - because they are used to punish other kinds of speech. All the same, we should criticise the contemporary tactics of suppression and punishment, and we can resist the temptation to indulge in them ourselves.

All in all, there are good reasons to support the free exchange of opinions and ideas, and to resist state censorship. But does this entail that we must defend all speech, no matter how extreme, that invades the privacy of individuals? Must we view Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, with its initial courtroom verdict in his favour, as an unacceptable kind of state censorship?

When we're thinking about such issues, it can be helpful to wonder what the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty (1859), might have thought. Mill was not an infallible seer, but his work remains useful for debates about individual liberty and freedom of speech.

Mill was concerned with what he called a "liberty of thought and discussion" about topics of general importance. As he well understood, the absence of state censorship of opinions is one requirement to achieve a society with this kind of liberty. Thus, he opposed governmental censorship, but he would also have opposed social actions aimed at suppressing disliked opinions, such as organised boycotting of people for their social, moral, religious, or political views.

At the same time, it's clear enough from Mill's body of work that he did not expect us to put up with damaging lies about individual citizens. Almost certainly, he would not have supported Gawker-style violations of personal privacy.

In my own case, I advocate the legal right and practical ability of artists, authors and ordinary people to express themselves frankly and fearlessly. I worry whenever I see ideas, opinions, and cultural productions (such as literary and artistic works) interpreted unfairly or censoriously. This distorts and hinders, rather than assists, the search for truth.

Whenever I can, I'm happy to be charitable, but I can't find much to say in Gawker's favour. Gawker Media and its chic defenders cannot seriously claim that gutter-level journalism, such as publication of the Hogan sex tape, needs protection to enable liberty of thought and discussion. No intellectual or cultural purpose was advanced by publishing the tape. Instead, Gawker engaged in a hurtful, damaging, contemptuous, and unjustified attack on an individual. Even free speech advocates can support narrowly framed laws to protect us from the worst such attacks.

Legal solutions frequently have problems: laws that restrict speech are often plagued by vagueness, scope creep and expansive interpretations. But even when the law is not a good solution - which remains to be seen with cases like Hogan's - we can repudiate organisations that engage in serious kinds of defamation or brutal invasions of personal privacy. Our liberty of thought and discussion does not require these smears and invasions, and it may even be hindered by them.
And as a bonus, in case you missed it - my piece at The Conversation, republished on this blog - about an earlier Gawker disaster.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Currently in Melbourne!

I'm currrently in Melbourne, staying at the delightful home of old friends Alison Kennedy and Tony Kuhn - and I plan to catch up with a fair assortment of friends in the next few days, although I wish I could stay longer and meet up with everyone. Do forgive me if you live in Melbourne and I don't get to see you before I head home next week. Having lived in Melbourne for over 30 years (from early 1979 to late 2009), I have many, many friends here, and I always feel at home when I visit.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I plan to celebrate in style.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I have joined the board of the Journal of Posthuman Studies

I'm wary these days about taking on new responsibilities as I'm pretty overstretched (and running behind with some projects). In fact, I've been trying to cut down on things to get it all a bit more under control. But I'm pleased to have joined the editorial board of the Journal of Posthuman Studies. This new journal has an impressive board and an important brief. It describes itself as follows:
The Journal of Posthuman Studies is a fully peer reviewed, multidisciplinary journal developed to analyse what it is to be human in an age of rapid technological, scientific, cultural and social evolution. As the boundaries between human and "the other", technological, biological and environmental, are eroded and perceptions of normalcy are challenged, they have generated a range of ethical, philosophical, cultural, and artistic questions that this journal seeks to address. Drawing on theory from critical posthumanism and the normative reflections of transhumanism, it encourages constructive but rigorously critical dialogue through discussion papers, forums, and a carefully curated balance of research articles. The journal publishes papers on issues such as the consequences of enhancement, especially bioenhancement, transhumanist, and posthumanist accounts of “the human,” and any and all ways in which they impact culture and society. The journal encourages submissions from a range of disciplines such as: philosophy, sociology, literary studies, cultural studies, critical theory, media studies, bioethics, medical ethics, anthropology, religious studies, disability studies, gender studies, queer studies, critical animal studies, environmental studies, and the visual arts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

One year ago at Cogito: "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate"

In case you missed it, this post at Cogito on "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate" appeared just on a year ago and I never did follow up in the way I foreshadowed at the end. Perhaps I should still do so, but it's one of those topics where I hesitate. It's so emotionally explosive - with very passionate views on all sides - that civil discussion is almost impossible, any factual errors will be pounced on viciously, and disagreement is likely to be interpreted as showing a morally corrupt character. If you want to make a genuine intellectual contribution, as opposed to engaging in noisy activism for whichever policies and viewpoints you already favour, this is an issue where you need to be very careful indeed.

Sample (slightly edited for flow):
Responses by philosophers run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from the philosophy blog Daily Nous to discuss this topic are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers - or other people - are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.

As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

Sunday supervillainy - Currently reading Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman

I've almost finished Alison Goodman's latest novel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club (also known as simply The Dark Days Club).

I don't usually offer disclaimers, since it's a small world and you can assume that I know many of the people whose books I discuss. But just this once, partly because I love this book - and I strongly recommend it if it sounds like your sort of thing - I'll get out of the way that Alison and I are personal friends.

With that said, this is a Gothic novel of a kind. It blends Regency romance (and Jane Austen's sharp eye for social observation) with a dark, soul-corrupting war against a demonic horde secretly entrenched in the cities, towns, and villages of the world. So what's not to like? It's beautifully written and adroitly paced, with rounded, vividly realized characters whom I find myself caring about. Lady Helen's dilemmas, large and small, are almost painful to contemplate. And yet we must know what she'll decide at each point - which keeps us devouring paragraphs and turning pages.

The bad guys of the narrative are demonic beings of various grades that infest the earth, preying on humankind by analogy, somewhat, to vampires. (Although this is not a vampire novel, Lady Helen does rather resemble Buffy - if Buffy were a young aristocratic woman living in England during the extravagant Regency period of the early nineteenth century.) These beings are opposed by a small group of especially gifted humans who might as well be considered mutants - the expression lusus naturae, whim, or we'd say "freak", of nature, is used more than once - and possess the terrible responsibility of employing their powers for mankind's greater good.

Much science fiction and fantasy can be seen as expressing anxiety about the uses of power. As we are told by countless book, movies, comics, etc. - whether it's Spider-Man, or the X-Men, or something more respectably middlebrow - certain people might use extraordinary powers altruistically and responsibly, while others would bend theirs to destructive or selfish purposes. In fiction, as with real-life uses of power (political, economic, technological, or otherwise), it is not always so straightforward. Even when used with all responsibility and diligence, great power may tend to corrupt the user, and this is certainly an overarching dilemma that confronts poor Lady Helen. Dare she embrace her abilities, and what kind of nightmare path in life will she be starting if she does? What would the power and the struggle do to her generous heart and purity of spirit?

There are two more books to come, so I'm looking forward to the whole trilogy.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin: Genetic engineering and the principle of intangible harm"

From March 2004 to August 2008 - when I submitted my dissertation to be examined - I undertook a Ph.D. in philosophy at Monash University under the supervision of Justin Oakley (with Dirk Baltzly filling in at one point while Justin was on sabbatical leave). My associate supervisors were Jeanette Kennett (briefly) and Rob Sparrow.

(During this time, I also did a lot of sessional lecturing and tutoring across the philosophy and bioethics curriculum at Monash; this, in fact, continued almost until I shifted house from Melbourne to Newcastle in late 2009. I still have many friends at Monash, though some have moved on to other institutions or to retirement.)

The title of my doctoral dissertation was "Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance." It was passed without revisions in November 2008, and I formally graduated in absentia at a ceremony in early 2009. Subsequently, I revised, updated, and slightly expanded it for publication as a book with MIT Press. This appeared at the beginning of 2014 under the title Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

In both the dissertation and the book, I argue that the nations of the world, and particularly the liberal democracies of the West, have been too hasty to enact draconian laws against a range of "genetic choices", such as human therapeutic and reproductive cloning, certain uses of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and genetic modification of human embryos. Not only that, the illiberal approach taken in this case augurs badly for the likely political responses to any future innovations that might cause widespread outrage and fear.

Throughout, I attempt to distinguish between, on one hand, moral arguments that might be made from various contestable viewpoints that should not prevail in lawmaking within liberal democracies and, on the other hand, widely accepted liberal principles such as the Millian harm principle. I consider various arguments against genetic choices that might plausibly pass muster under liberal principles - and while I find various grains of merit in some of them, I don't find enough to justify the regimes of restrictions and bans that are currently in place, many of them enacted in response to the announcement, in early 1997, of the birth of Dolly the Sheep.

I'm linking to my article "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin: Genetic engineering and the principle of intangible harm." This was published in The Monist, a prestigious peer-reviewed philosophy journal, during my stint at Monash. It was one of several journal articles that I wrote while completing the Ph.D. I've recently uploaded a copy at Academia.edu - so you might want to check it out if you have access.

The point of the article is to consider whether technologies such as genetic engineering of human embryos could cause some kind of "intangible harm" to human societies such as described by the great British jurist Lord Patrick Devlin. I ask about the possible social effects if genetic engineering is used to produce dramatic enhancements of human capacities.

Devlin notoriously put forward the argument about intangible harm during debates in the late 1950s, and into the 1960s, about legalisation of prostitution and homosexual acts. He was replying to the Wolfenden Report, which recommended liberal reforms to the law in Britain. The overall judgment of history has been that Devlin's arguments in defence of a conservative position - and what is now called legal moralism - failed (though of course there is still much opposition to prostitution, often on independent grounds based largely on paternalism).

For all that, might Devlin have something to teach us? His suggestion that allowing some practices could cause so-called "intangible harm", by destroying social bonds in some way, is not obviously ridiculous, even if fails badly as a justification for prohibition of, in particular, homosexual acts. In "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin", I try to sort out whether the argument does any better with more futuristic practices such as genetic engineering (something that we are now closer to being able to do effectively, with the recent development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology). In the end, I'm rather sceptical, despite trying to give the argument a good run.

To be honest, I think I do a better job with this in Humanity Enhanced, based on my dissertation written a few years after the article. My later accounts have a sharper, and more comprehensive, analysis of the jurisprudential principles involved.

But I'm fond of "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin." Although it represents a relatively early stage of my thinking - published, as it was, about seven years before Humanity Enhanced - I still feel that I managed to lend some clarity to difficult issues. Do check it out if the policy issues surrounding genetic science interest you. As its (memetic) parent, I'm certainly biased, but I think it deserves some more readers.


Postscript: Having just re-read the article, I think the above even sells it a bit short. At any rate, if you don't have the time to read, or money to buy, Humanity Enhanced, "Dr. Frankenstein meets Lord Devlin" might be worth your while. It lays out a lot of my thinking about these issues in fairly extended form. Also, it gives an idea of where I am coming from in debates about genetic choice and much else.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Dolly the Sheep and the human cloning debate - twenty years later

(I'm now republishing this article in full. It was originally published on The Conversation. You can read the original here).

Dolly, the world’s most famous and controversial sheep, was born twenty years ago – on July 5, 1996 to be precise. She was the first mammal to enter the world following a process of reproductive cloning, making the event a spectacular scientific breakthrough.

To create Dolly, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland employed a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). With SCNT, DNA from the nucleus of an ordinary cell - obtained from anywhere in an animal’s body - is transferred into an enucleated oocyte (egg cell), typically from a different animal.

In Dolly’s case, her DNA came from one sheep’s mammary cell; it was implanted into an egg from another sheep; and the resulting tiny biological entity was implanted into the uterus of yet a third sheep, where it grew until birth.

The result of SCNT is a creature with almost the same genetic potential as the one providing the nuclear DNA. SCNT is thus a powerful, and often effective, form of animal cloning.

Dolly is born! Announcement and reaction

Subsequently, in February 1997, Ian (now Sir Ian) Wilmut and his research team at the Roslin Institute announced Dolly’s birth in the prestigious science journal Nature. This provoked political and ethical debates that have never truly stopped.

Public discussion of cloning gradually receded in prominence as new issues arose to dominate the airwaves and the headlines, notably the threat of jihadist terrorism following the attacks on September 11, 2001. But issues relating to cloning technology remain crucial to debates over biomedical research and its regulation.

The announcement – with a description of the method used to bring Dolly into existence – triggered a feverish worldwide response because of the possible implications for human cloning. It was immediately obvious that SCNT could, in principle, be used to create human babies. Across the world, many countries banned human cloning - often with significant punishments, such as lengthy jail terms, even for attempting such a thing.

The case against cloning

The actual arguments against human cloning are extremely varied, and I cannot elaborate them all here. (I go into more of them, and in far more depth, in my 2014 book, Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies).

One common claim is that bringing children into the world in this way is somehow a violation of the natural order, or of human dignity; or perhaps it would be an act of “playing God”. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to pin down precisely what any of these claims really mean in the context of bioethical debate. I am, for example, sceptical about the existence of anything that can correctly be called “human dignity”.

Some critics fear that children created via SCNT would be subjected to unfair expectations of duplicating the talents and achievements of whoever provided their nuclear DNA. Sometimes the critics speak in terms of the autonomy of the child being violated, diminished or denied, although it can be very difficult to spell out exactly what this amounts to. In Humanity Enhanced, I challenge the idea that children conceived through SCNT would have their autonomy violated – or would somehow lack or lose autonomy – in any sense inapplicable to “ordinary” children.

Some critics worry about a larger social effect, or even an effect on our species, if cloning restricted the diversity of children being born (perhaps because parents and doctors might look for donors with a narrow range of characteristics, such as possessing high intelligence and meeting certain standards of physical beauty).

Yet other arguments acknowledge that reproductive cloning in itself might not have a great social or species-wide impact; however, it’s claimed, cloning could place human societies on a slippery slope toward accepting even more radical technological interventions such as genetic engineering of human traits. On one version of the approach, this would, in turn, set us upon a path to unequivocally horrible social outcomes. Thus cloning supposedly confronts us with a slippery slope to another slippery slope … which seems like a tenuous style of argument.

Though some of these fears may have an element of truth, they are all exaggerated. In my view, which I’ve defended in Humanity Enhanced and other publications, human cloning would not be a seriously worrying action if we could carry it out safely.

To some extent, however, all of this is moot. Over the past twenty years, we have enjoyed success in cloning many mammalian species, but no one has cloned a human being. Indeed, we have been frustrated in efforts to clone other primates such as apes and monkeys.

In the upshot, human reproductive cloning is not yet feasible, and indeed there’s no current prospect that it could be carried out effectively and safely in the foreseeable future. Even if we did conceive a human embryo through SCNT, and we then managed to bring it to term, the odds are very high that the result would be a seriously deformed child.

That’s a good pragmatic reason not to make attempts until we know a lot more, and even then we’d need to have developed the technology to a point where we are about as likely as with ordinary births to end up with a healthy baby.

I don’t rule out that someone might accomplish this technological feat one day, but, once again, there is no sign of it happening. Nor is it what SCNT research is really about from the point of view of reputable medical researchers. The real action is with what is known as “therapeutic cloning”. Allow me to explain.

Reproductive and therapeutic cloning

So far I’ve focused on “reproductive cloning”, and more specifically on human reproductive cloning: the postulated use of SCNT (or any other technique that might have a similar result) to bring about the birth of a human child.

By contrast, the expression “therapeutic cloning” refers to the creation of human embryos by SCNT for some other purpose, such as for biomedical research or for harvesting cells or tissues to be used in therapies.

Although some ethical issues are raised with therapeutic cloning – including a concern that the associated research destroys human embryos – the idea has been obtaining legal acceptance in some countries, usually subject to tight government regulation. If we start to see impressive results from therapeutic cloning, with new therapies emerging from the research, I expect that it will eventually obtain the same wide acceptance that IVF – in vitro fertilization – now enjoys in Western countries. (It’s not that long ago that IVF was also widely regarded as abhorrent.)

More generally, people come to embrace new technologies, even those that initially seemed shocking and “unnatural”, once concrete benefits become clear.

Twenty years later

Two decades later, I’m not sure that the ethical arguments advanced for and against human cloning are greatly different from those we saw back 1997. However, the early debate was very one-sided. The initial response to the dramatic Nature article by Wilmut et al. was largely one of fear, mingled with disgust, with too little rational reflection. Since then, the fear-mongering has partly died down, but not before a great deal of draconian legislation was enacted across the world. Little chance was given for calmer voices - or any dissenting voices - to be heard before governments took action.

As it seems to me, calmer voices eventually won the academic debate. There is a strong sense, within the field of secular bioethics, that the early arguments against human reproductive and therapeutic cloning were flawed. However, dissenters lost the political debate almost before it began. Politicians, journalists, many academics, and the general public in our Western liberal democracies greeted the very idea of human cloning with a cascade of hostility.

The expressions of fear, disgust, and moral outrage appeared immediately; in response, highly illiberal laws were enacted without due consideration of the issues.

But more reasonable people are slowly winning back the central political ground, gradually making the public case that technologies based on SCNT may bring many benefits. That, perhaps, will be the story of the next twenty years.