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).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Philosophy versus science versus politics [republishing]

[I'm republishing this piece because I think it deserves a bit more attention than it received in 2015. Although the topic sounds obscure, the post raises what still strike me as important questions about our practices in seeking truth.]


We might hope that good arguments will eventually drive out bad arguments – in what Timothy Williamson calls “a reverse analogue of Gresham’s Law” – and we might want (almost?) complete freedom for ideas and arguments, rather than suppressing potentially valuable ones.

Unfortunately, it takes honesty and effort before the good arguments can defeat the bad.

Williamson on philosophy and science

In a field such as philosophy, the reverse Gresham’s Law analogue may be too optimistic, as Williamson suggests.

Williamson points out that very often a philosopher profoundly wants one answer rather than another to be the right one. He or she may thus be predisposed to accept certain arguments and to reject others. If the level of obscurity is high in a particular field of discussion (as will almost always be the case with philosophical controversies), “wishful thinking may be more powerful than the ability to distinguish good arguments from bad”. So much so “that convergence in the evaluation of arguments never occurs.”

Williamson has a compelling point. Part of the seemingly intractable dissensus in philosophy comes from motivated reasoning about the issues. There is a potential for intellectual disaster in the combination of: 1) strong preferences for certain conclusions; and 2) very broad latitude for disagreement about the evidence and the arguments.

This helps to explain why many philosophical disagreements appear to be, for practical purposes, intractable. In such cases, rival philosophical theories may become increasingly sophisticated, and yet none can obtain a conclusive victory over its rivals. As a result, philosophical investigation does not converge on robust findings. A sort of progress may result, but not in the same way as in the natural sciences.

By way of comparison, Williamson imagines a difficult scientific dispute. Two rival theories may have committed proponents “who have invested much time, energy, and emotion”, and only high-order experimental skills can decide which theory is correct. If the standards of the relevant scientific community are high enough in terms of conscientiousness and accuracy, the truth will eventually prevail. But if the scientific community is just a bit more tolerant of what Williamson calls “sloppiness and rhetorical obfuscation” both rival theories may survive indefinitely, with neither ever being decisively refuted.

All that’s required for things to go wrong is a bit less care in protecting samples from impurity, a bit more preparedness to accept ad hoc hypotheses, a bit more swiftness in dismissing opposing arguments as question-begging. “A small difference in how carefully standards are applied can make a large difference between eventual convergence and eventual divergence”, he says.

For Williamson, the moral of the story is that philosophy has more chance of making progress if philosophers are rigorous and more demanding of themselves, and if they are open to being wrong. Much philosophical work, he thinks, is shoddy, vague, impatient and careless in checking details.

It may be protected from refutation by rhetorical techniques such as “pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality.” Williamson prefers philosophy that is patient, precise, rigorously argued, and carefully explained, even at the risk of seeming boring or pedantic. As he puts it, “Pedantry is a fault on the right side.”

An aspiration for philosophy

I think there’s something in this – an element of truth in Williamson’s analysis. Admittedly, the kind of work that he is advocating may not be easily accessible to the general educated public (although any difficulty of style would be from the real complexities of the subject matter, rather than an attempt to impress with a dazzling performance).

It’s also possible that there are other and deeper problems for philosophy that hinder its progress. Nonetheless, the discipline is marked by emotional investments in many proposed conclusions, together with characteristics that make it easy for emotionally motivated reasoners to evade refutation.

If we want to make more obvious progress in philosophy, we had better try to counter these factors. At a minimum that will involve openness to being wrong and to changing our minds. It will mean avoiding bluster, rhetorical zingers, general sloppiness and the protection that comes from making vague or equivocal claims.

This can all be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, we will often fail to meet the highest available standards, but we can at least try to do so. Imperfection is inevitable, but we needn’t indulge our urges to protect emotionally favoured theories. We can aspire to something better.

Politics, intellectual honesty, and discussion in the public square

There is one obvious area of discussion in modern democracies where the intellectual rigour commended by Williamson – which he sees as prevalent in the sciences and as a worthy aspiration for philosophers – is given almost no credence. I’m referring to the claims made by rivals in democratic party politics.

Here, the aim is usually to survive and prevail at all costs. Ideas are protected through sloppiness, rhetoric and even outright distortion of the facts, and opponents are viewed as enemies to be defeated. Purity of adherence to a “party line” is frequently enforced, and internal dissenters are treated as heretics. All too often, they are thought to deserve the most personal, microscopic and embarrassing scrutiny. It may culminate in ostracism, orchestrated smearing and other punishments.

This is clearly not a recipe for finding the truth. Whatever failures of intellectual dishonesty are shown by philosophers, they are usually very subtle compared to those exhibited during party political struggles.

I doubt that we can greatly change the nature of party political debate, though we can certainly call for more intellectual honesty and for less of the distortion that comes from political Manichaeism. Even identifying the prevalence of political Manichaeism – and making it more widely known – is a worthwhile start.

Greatly changing the nature of party political debate may be difficult because emotions run high. Losing may be seen as socially catastrophic, and comprehensive worldviews are engaged. By its very nature, this sort of debate is aimed at obtaining power rather than inquiring into the truth. Political rhetoric appeals to the hearts and minds – but especially the hearts – of mass electorates. It has an inevitable tendency in the direction of propaganda.

To some extent, we are forced to accept robust, even brutal, debate over party political issues. When we do so, however, we can at least recognise it as exceptional, rather than as a model for debate in other areas. It should not become the template for more general cultural and moral discussions – or even broadly political discussions – and we are right to protest when we see it becoming so.

It’s an ugly spectacle when party politics proceeds with each side attempting to claim scalps – demonizing opponents, attempting to embarrass them or to present them as somehow disgraced, forcing them, if at all possible, to resign from office – rather than seeking the truth.

It’s an even more worrying spectacle when wider debate in the public square is carried on in much the same way. We should be dissatisfied when journalists, literary and cultural critics, supposedly serious bloggers, and academics – and other contributors to the public culture who are not party politicians – mimic party politicians’ standards.

If anything, our politicians need to be nudged toward better standards. But even if that is unrealistic, we don’t have to adopt them as role models. Instead, we can seek standards of care, patience, rigour and honesty. We can avoid engaging in the daily pile-ons, ostracisms, smear campaigns, and all the other tactics that amount to taking scalps rather than honestly discussing issues and examining arguments. We can, furthermore, look for ways to support individuals who have been isolated and unfairly targeted.

High standards

At election time, we may have to vote for one political party or another, or else not vote (formally) at all. But in the rest of our lives, we can often suspend judgement on genuinely difficult issues. We can take intellectual opponents’ arguments seriously, and we can develop views that don’t align with any of the various off-the-shelf ones currently available.

More plainly, we can think for ourselves on matters of philosophical, moral, cultural and political controversy. Importantly, we can encourage others to do the same, rather than trying to punish them for disagreeing with us.

Party politicians are necessary, or at least they are better than any obvious alternatives (hereditary despots, anyone?). But they should never be regarded as role models for the rest of us.
Timothy Williamson asks for extremely high intellectual standards that may not be fully achievable even within philosophy, let alone in broader public discussion. We can, however, aspire to something like them, rather than indulging in the worst – in tribal and Manichaean – alternatives.

-- Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle
First published on The Conversation, April 31, 2015

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Locking horns over bioethics: The challenge from Steven Pinker [republishing]

[First published on The Conversation, August 8, 2015. I'm republishing this because I think it's one of my better pieces, and that it deals with an important topic. It could do with some more attention.]

In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, high-profile psychologist and author Steven Pinker strongly criticized the profession, or academic field, of bioethics. Pinker’s article suggests that the main imperative for bioethicists right now is to “get out of the way” of potentially valuable research.

This has prompted numerous defences of bioethics, including one from my Cogito colleague Matthew Beard. I will take a different tack, because I believe Pinker is largely correct. I do, however, agree with Matthew Beard’s comment that Pinker is, himself, making moral presuppositions. We all do that, and we must face up to it.

Indeed, a problem with disputes such as this - including a vast range of debate over moral, philosophical, political, and cultural issues - is that they are not empirically tractable. Often, the disputants are relying, at a deep level, on different presuppositions. At that level, there may not be even an approximate and tacit consensus. Disputants lock their philosophical horns, with no realistic prospect of reaching agreement, because they don’t accept each other’s basic premises. I’ll return to this.

A modest defence of bioethics

I might seem an obvious person to argue the toss with Pinker: to offer a defence of bioethics.

My formal qualifications include a Masters degree in bioethics from Monash University, and I hold a Ph.D in philosophy from the same institution, where I wrote a dissertation grounded in philosophical bioethics and legal/political philosophy. A considerably revised version of this has since (2014) been published by MIT Press under the title Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Much of my published work - both academic publications and more popular ones - fits comfortably within bioethics, and I have taught bioethics to undergraduate students. In particular, I’ve acted in the past as the lecturer and coordinator at Monash for its subject “Ethics, Genetics and the Law”.

Given all that background, it’s unlikely that I’d oppose the academic field of bioethics, and of course I don’t. On the contrary, I count as a bioethicist in good standing, though notably a philosophical bioethicist.

More specifically, I support intellectually rigorous investigation of what laws and ethical guidelines should apply to medical practice and biomedical research. As individuals, and as a society, we have an interest in regulating these practices. Perhaps most obviously, we want some assurance that doctors will be focused on helping us with our individual problems, rather than on secretly using us to test pet theories about treatment regimes. Again, we want to know that our own values will prevail when we accept risky treatments, and that the values of our doctors won’t be imposed on us. It follows that we seek assurance that risks will be explained to us accurately, and that we won’t be channelled into accepting treatments without first being given disclosure of possible side effects.

These sorts of fears and concerns are perfectly reasonable. They can be elaborated, sub-divided, and further divided at indefinite length, but the general idea is easy to understand. Once identified, fears and concerns such as these give support to key bioethical principles such as those of respecting patient autonomy and obtaining informed consent to treatment. There must also be exceptions, such as when consent cannot be obtained in an emergency or if a patient is too immature or intellectually impaired to understand the situation.

All of this is important for at least three reasons. First, the grave consequences of many medical choices. Second, the imbalance - often a dramatic one - between the power and knowledge of a patient (or a research subject) and the power and knowledge of a medical practitioner (or a research scientist). Third, the shocking history of (many) practitioners and researchers abusing their superior power and knowledge. I’m sure we could add other important aspects.

We need to set rules, we need to adapt them to new situations as they arise, and we need to teach the rules to professionals who’ll be expected to follow them (such as doctors and scientists) or enforce them (such as lawyers). In developing regulatory policy in a fraught area like this, we inevitably encounter conflicting values that must be balanced in some way. All of this inevitably leads to a field such as bioethics. It has a history and a crucial social role. Bioethics is, and (I submit) should be, a thriving field for research, teaching, and practical implementation.

In summary, the field of bioethics is legitimate and important - and I’ll continue to contribute to it.

Why Pinker and I can agree

I don’t, however, believe that Pinker would seriously deny any of the above. At least, nothing that he states in his Boston Globe article commits him to doing so.

The view that he has stated, admittedly in a polemical way, is a perfectly respectable one within the field of bioethics. In fact, as a philosophical bioethicist I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Pinker claims - and I agree - that many of the current rules, and the practices through which they are interpreted and applied, have swung too far in the direction of constraining research. At the very least, that’s a legitimate viewpoint.

Alas, the established rules and practices - and the deeper principles appealed to in order to support them - can outrun the reasons why we needed rules in the first place.

It is one thing to establish a rule that forbids a doctor from prescribing a drug without warning about its known and significant side effects. There’s an obvious reason why I might fear that happening to me as a patient, and there is, unfortunately, a history of many doctors making high-handed decisions. Sometimes they’ve acted from a paternalistic attitude that they know what is best for the patient. Sometimes they have used patients as mere guinea pigs. Rules that forbid these forms of professional arrogance serve a real and obvious need. Well-crafted rules help allay commonsense, and reasonably uncontroversial, fears and concerns.

But it’s another thing entirely if some form of treatment or research is forbidden because it violates a nebulous - and highly controversial - value such as “dignity”, “sacredness”, or “social justice”. It is not even obvious that there is such as thing as dignity in the relevant (perhaps Kantian) sense, let alone sacredness. Various meanings can be given to the term “social justice”, but its content is, at best, furiously contested. Even if two political philosophers can agree on its meaning at a highly abstract level, they are likely to give it dramatically different concrete content.

Accordingly, I agree with Pinker’s decision to place all these expressions in scare quotes. It might not mean that he is merely sneering at them, but he is certainly distancing himself. And rightly so. The scare quotes convey that these expressions cannot be taken for granted as transparent or useful, or as referring to things that exist in the real world.

Perhaps most obviously, it seems to me, as to many others (doubtless including Pinker), that nothing is genuinely and literally sacred. Even if something does possess the mysterious property of sacredness, or sanctity, it is highly doubtful that contested ideas about that should have any role in shaping regulatory policy in secular liberal democracies.

In the upshot, Pinker and I can agree because it is possible to come to conclusions similar to his from within the field of bioethics, and without denying the field’s practical necessity. Indeed, a large proportion of philosophical bioethicists are suspicious of the same expressions that Pinker places in scare quotes. My impression is that many of us also share his view that some current laws and other rules are unnecessary, illiberal, perhaps even irrational.

How to be a sceptical bioethicist

It is possible to study bioethics from a rather sceptical viewpoint. That is, we can be sceptical about much of the supposed wisdom in the field, including the use by some bioethicists of noble-sounding appeals to “human dignity”, “the sanctity of human life”, and so on. As I’ve shown above, the field of bioethics does not need any such expressions or concepts to justify its important role.

My own work in philosophical bioethics takes a markedly sceptical approach, in this sense; and that, in turn, meshes well with my general approach to philosophy. Much of my research involves disputing the authority of social institutions - such as morality, religion, and the law - that purport to tell us how to live our lives.

I don’t suggest that we can do without all these institutions. I certainly don’t imagine that we could get by without the institution of law (religion is another matter, though; I’d be happy to do away with it).

When confronted by these powerful institutions, we can subject their various claims to rational scrutiny. (I am not a “cultural Marxist”, but this is a kind of critique of domination!)

Returning specifically to bioethics, it seems clear enough that we do need laws and ethical guidelines to give us some protection from the power - and its possible abuses - held by doctors and medical researchers. Something similar could be said about the need for rules restricting abuses of power by lawyers and journalists. But that does not tell us, in itself, which rules we should have or whether the current ones are, overall, too restrictive, too lax, or about right.

Although Pinker is not a professional bioethicist, that in itself should not prevent him from having an informed opinion about the current laws, guidelines, etc., applying to medical practice and research. Indeed, all citizens are affected by regulatory policy in these areas, and I encourage my readers, regardless of their backgrounds, to inform themselves as well as they can.

It doesn’t seem that Pinker wants to do away with all the rules, or with the rigorous investigation of which rules best serve us. He appears to believe that the current rules are about right when it comes to protecting individual patients and research subjects, but that they are too restrictive in other ways. Whether or not he is too sanguine about the former, the latter is very likely true.

To some extent, that is an empirical question: it requires detailed study of exactly which research has been hindered over recent decades. But there’s more to it than that.

Locking horns forever?

As I mentioned at the outset, bioethical debates can involve persistent and intractable disagreement, much like other moral, philosophical, cultural, and political controversies. To some extent, that is because of difficulty in obtaining relevant empirical data. It is, however, also because of deep-seated disagreements in presuppositions.

Debates within the physical and biological sciences often converge on agreement. That is possible because there is already an approximate (often tacit) agreement on what counts as evidence, what standards of evidence apply, and what forms of reasoning from observations to theoretical conclusions are cogent.

Debate about questions of what is morally right or wrong, what regulatory policies we should develop and apply, or what is a good life - or even what is a good book - are more often characterised by persistent, emotionally charged failure to achieve consensus. Whereas scientific theories can be overthrown relatively rapidly if they are contradicted by too many observational anomalies, religious worldviews, moral theories, political ideologies and viewpoints, and conceptions of living well display great resistance to criticism or falsification. When some go out of fashion, or survive only by changing radically, it may require social upheaval, the use of force, or the passage of a long period of time.

Although there is much agreement within the field of bioethics - for example, no one seriously doubts that there is an important role for patient autonomy - there is also much scope for persistent dissensus. To some extent, the field is riven by different conceptions of why we need bioethics at all.

My earlier explanation of why we need bioethics would be contested by some bioethicists as shallow or reductive, or perhaps as scientistic. There may, for example, be no way that I can reach agreement with an opponent who insists that the purpose of bioethics is to protect “human dignity” rather than to allay ordinary fears of abuses. Even a bioethics based on the latter can become complex, given the varied and difficult situations that can arise; however, it will look very different from a bioethics based on radically different concepts and perhaps an entirely different worldview.

Under those circumstances, consensus may be out of reach unless - and until - general social values change.

Conclusion

In summary, I can agree with Pinker’s main points from within the field of bioethics and without in any way deprecating its legitimacy or importance. I hope that Pinker would acknowledge this much.

Pinker may or may not be a utilitarian at the level of theoretical normative ethics. I don’t consider myself to be a utilitarian, but he and I would probably agree that bioethics is best justified as serving various commonsensical and secular interests. He speaks of the need for safeguards of safety and informed consent, and I agree that this is central.

We might both have a problem reaching agreement with those bioethicists (Margaret Somerville, Leon Kass, and many others) who have fundamentally different conceptions of what values bioethics should protect - perhaps grounded in fundamentally different worldviews.

I doubt that those differences can be settled - at least quickly - but it is open to me, or to Pinker, to make a case to the wider public that bioethics should be tied to a relatively narrow and prosaic purpose. Further, we can argue for considerable freeing up of existing principles, laws, guidelines, interpretations, and practices. We can argue for an increased priority to be placed on greenlighting (rather than impeding) biomedical research.

That case may require more detail, and more engagement with objections, than in Pinker’s relatively short Boston Globe article. I hope he will develop his views at greater length.

Meanwhile, many people - doctors, scientists, administrators, lawyers, and ordinary citizens from every walk of life who may become patients or research subjects - have a stake in bioethical controversies. Formal training in philosophical bioethics can help in coming to grips with the issues, and in not reinventing wheels or going down known false paths. At the same time, we all need to think about policy in this area. Bioethics is too important to be left to professional bioethicists.

-- Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Same-Sex Marriage: A Case for “Yes”

In its decision last week, the High Court of Australia cleared the way for a voluntary survey of the electorate to gauge community support for same-sex marriage. I don’t defend this idea: a voluntary survey is an unreliable instrument at best, and in any event providing for same-sex marriage is an issue that could be settled by an ordinary parliamentary vote without unusual steps such as a plebiscite or a national survey.

Still, the survey will go ahead whether I prefer it to or not. It will ask us whether we support same-sex marriage. I’ll reply “Yes” and I urge others to do the same.

This need not be an issue that divides (small-l) liberals like me and realistic conservatives. Conservatism has its place. It stands as a barrier to revolutionary, perhaps irresponsible, change. Liberalism acts as a needed social force pushing back against restrictions of individual liberty. Conservatives and liberals don’t have to disagree on every single issue.

In this case, continued denial of same-sex marriage would be illiberal, but it also goes against the best instincts of conservatives. Admittedly, some conservatives will never accept same-sex marriage because they wish to impose a traditional Christian moral code on the wider community. Note, however, that this is more reactionary and theocratic than merely conservative. Conservatives who are understandably wary of sudden, irresponsible change can acknowledge that same-sex marriage’s time has come. Many, I think, are already coming to that view and I hope they’ll continue to speak up.

Same-sex marriage is no longer a revolutionary idea or even a novelty. Many other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and even the staunchly Catholic nation of Ireland, have increasingly provided for same-sex marriage, and Australia has become an outlier among Western liberal democracies. The experience in other countries provides ample evidence that extending marriage to same-sex couples is not a irresponsible step. It can be workable and need not harm the social fabric.

More fundamentally, same-sex marriage makes sense because marriage itself has changed over the past two hundred years - and especially over the past fifty years or so - along with its social meaning.
Times do change. During the 1960s and 1970s - the era of the Sexual Revolution and the phase of modern feminism associated with the Women’s Liberation Movement - genuinely revolutionary ideas about sex marriage were in vogue. The institution of marriage was subjected to fundamental criticism, and, to be frank, it was largely deserved.

Marriage, as it was understood and practised in European Christendom and its colonial offshoots, had a dubious history. It functioned as a form of social, and especially sexual, control. In particular, it constricted the sexuality of women. More generally, unreformed marriage was a blatantly patriarchal institution. Writing in the 1860s, John Stuart Mill identified the marriage bond as a form of slavery for women. He was not far wrong.

To play its role, marriage operated as licence for sexual experience, which was otherwise forbidden by morality if not by law. Standards of chastity were, of course, applied far more harshly to women than to men. Among the wealthier classes, marriage also operated as a tool for economic ends such as estate planning. From the viewpoint of sixties-and-seventies radicals, there was much about marriage that was far from romantic and did not deserve to be sentimentalised. Like Mill a century earlier, they had point.

Yet, marriage had already changed and softened from what it once had been. There was a long process through the 1800s and the first half of the twentieth century that improved the legal situation of women and altered the ideal of marriage far more toward one of companionship between equals. Under a range of social pressures, marriage has continued in that direction.

Marriage has become a kinder and far more flexible concept than it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or even the 1960s. This came about in the context of a grand social compromise, not necessarily imagined by anybody in advance, where marriage’s importance was largely preserved even as its character and ground rules changed. The current ideal of marriage in Western democracies is an equal union between two companions, involving love and intimacy. Often, it even lives up to that ideal.

Same-sex marriage became increasingly more thinkable during the 1980s and thereafter until the idea is not at all revolutionary. The impetus came, in large part, from the 1981 AIDS crisis, but the idea of marriage for same-sex couples was able to gain traction because marriage itself had been changing in an accommodating way. Broadening the scope of marriage to include same-sex couples is now a coherent and attractive proposition. Indeed, younger people who were born after the AIDS crisis and have grown up with the contemporary ideal of marriage find the exclusion of same-sex couples incomprehensible.

The changing ideal of marriage has been very significant, but it happened sufficiently gradually for Western societies to adapt around it. Provision by Australian law for same-sex marriages will give effect to a concept of marriage that meets contemporary social reality and keeps the institution relevant. Far from undermining marriage as a cherished social institution, same-sex marriage will tend to strengthen it. It will show marriage as still socially relevant, as adaptable to the needs and values of 21st-century Australians.

At the same time, the trend in Western countries toward recognition of same-sex marriage is not entirely a social defeat for conservatives. I urge them - those who have not already done so - to embrace the idea as one they can live with and even take some comfort from.

Marriage continues to maintain social prestige, and it retains deep emotional significance for most citizens, including many gay men and lesbians. Once they shed their aversion to homosexuality itself - as they increasingly have - realistic conservatives can take comfort that marriage is something that so many gay men and lesbians actually want.

Our choice as voters over the coming months is to accept a genuinely modern ideal of marriage - and thus base policy upon it - or to affirm a much older concept of marriage that younger people find irrelevant and has relatively little community support. The latter would bring marriage into disrepute.

More and more conservatives have grasped that the continuing importance of marriage is in many ways a victory for their viewpoint, and that there are other issues around which they can continue to define themselves. At this point, resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage has become somewhat absurd, even by the lights of these clued-up conservatives.

Marriage itself has changed, along with its social meaning. It’s time to accept that not-so-harsh reality, whatever our views might be on other political issues. The trend in Western countries toward recognition of same-sex marriage is not entirely a social defeat for conservatives, and I urge them, in particular, to embrace what is happening. Almost all Australians, liberal-minded or realistically conservative, now have good reason to vote “Yes”.

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle
This piece was originally published by The Conversation on 11 September 2017


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who Will Flourish in a Brave New World?

This paper, originally published in New Philosopher in 2014, is now available here (on my Academia.edu page). It also gives a taste of the analysis you'll find in Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Kindle issue of Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination now available

New from Amazon - you can now buy the electronic edition of Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics for your Kindle or other device. Go for it!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination coming soon

 My new book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics, is available for pre-order on Amazon. Amazon is now giving October 4 as the date when the book will be available from its site.

These things often do slip a bit, so I hope it won't slip any further. (Springer is also now giving October 4 as the publication date, and you can pre-order directly from its site.)

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination is not merely a book that uses science fiction narratives for pedagogical purposes to illustrate concepts in the field of philosophy (though there are some other good books along those lines). It is much closer to being a short (around 200 large-format pages) history and philosophy of the science fiction genre.

If you do read this book, you'll see the enormous amount of scholarly work that went into it. My books tend not to be all that long - mainly because the publishers I work with tend to prefer it that way - but they contain little in the way of padding and much in the way of solid information and analysis. In this case, the price is also very reasonable for a book from an academic publisher, with Amazon currently charging only US$13.47 for the trade paperback edition.

I'll  quote the back-cover blurb from Gregory Benford in an effort to pique your interest further:
In this highly original book, Russell Blackford discusses the intersection of science fiction and humanity’s moral imagination. With the rise of science and technology in the 19th century, and our continually improving understanding of the cosmos, writers and thinkers soon began to imagine futures greatly different from the present. Science fiction was born out of the realization that future technoscientific advances could dramatically change the world. Along with the developments described in modern science fiction - space societies, conscious machines, and upgraded human bodies, to name but a few - come a new set of ethical challenges and new forms of ethics. Blackford identifies these issues and their reflection in science fiction. His fascinating book will appeal to anyone with an interest in philosophy or science fiction, or in how they interact.

This is a seasoned, balanced analysis of a major issue in our thinking about the future, seen through the lens of science fiction, a central art of our time. Everyone from humanists to technologists should study these ideas and examples. Blackford’s book is wise and savvy, and a delight to read as well.
Early sales help visibility, so if you're thinking of buying this volume (or asking your local academic library to do so) please consider doing so sooner rather than later.


UPDATE, September 8: Kindle edition now available from Amazon!