About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Just war theory

Over the past year or so, I've gone to a couple of papers - and read a number of others - on just war theory and its application to contemporary decisions about developing weapons systems and going to war. Rob Sparrow, my associate Ph.D supervisor presented a fascinating paper today; this got me thinking, although the problems have been festering in my mind for much longer.

Just war theory is politically handy because it is given a lot of credence by military planners themselves, as Rob reminded us, and because its prestige enables the framing of arguments with a degree of moral authority in the public sphere. Certainly, a genuine application of it would have had a salutary result when the US-led invasion of Iraq was under consideration: it is inconceivable that this could have counted as a just war.

And yet, I find myself rather uncomfortable with some of the arguments that I hear or read from time to time - even when they support my position with respect to Iraq - and I have been trying to work out why. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to see exactly how the concepts used in just war theory are grounded in anything deeper, though there is some prospect, I suppose, of treating them like the sorts of moral rules that would be favoured by a rule-utilitarian.

I have difficulties with any form of utilitarianism, in any event: I think that it makes unsustainable superlative demands on us (why should we want to maximise total utility, as opposed to adopting more human-level aims such as trying to reduce the suffering in the world, or trying to prevent social breakdown?). At the same time, it does not cover all our values or all of our reasons for supporting the institution of morality.

However, I also think that morality has to be given some kind of broadly consequentialist justification in the end. Roughly speaking, our morality protects things that we value and protects us from things that we fear. I don't mean this formula to be read literally or restrictively - for example, part of our morality's point is, indeed, to reduce suffering, and not just our own suffering. We are sympathetic creatures who place a disvalue on the suffering of other sentient beings, even if we don't exactly "fear" it. (At least, most of us disvalue the suffering of others ... and the minority who do not are a danger to the rest of us. What to do about such hardened, or even psychopathic, people is a separate problem.)

What would be a justification for the concepts involved in just war theory, such as jus ad bellum and jus in bello? Presumably, it would be something like a recognition of the horror, cruelty, suffering, and so on caused by war, and a wish to minimise these things. Hence, when we look deeper, we have good reason to try to establish an international standard according to which nations must not go to war for such reasons as the pursuit of "glory" or economic success, or to pander to the egotistical desires of rulers who wish to gain more territory and more subjects - the imperial urge. We have reason to want to condemn the use of war except for such purposes as self-defence or the avoidance of humanitarian catastrophe.

Furthermore, once we involve ourselves in war, we have a reason to do whatever is required to minimise the suffering on both sides. While we may have very good reasons to want to win a defensive or humanitarian war, and this may mean giving priority to minimising our own losses, we also have compassionate reasons to cause no more suffering to others than is strictly necessary to achieve our aim. (There might also be reasons to do even less than that if it involves something like torture, but I think that that could raise issues going beyond just war theory.)

To the extent that just war theory packages up these ideas, it is surely quite defensible. However, the detail of the theory tends to go further. That may be a good thing in many cases. For example, the wish to create only the minimum possible suffering for the "other side" may lead us to try to avoid killing non-combatants who are no serious military threat. Accordingly, it's doubtless a good idea to adopt a rule against deliberate targeting of enemy civilians.

However, there are problems.

First, if we are going to draw up a checklist of things that should not be done in war - perhaps because we think that a simple, clear code of rules will be pragmatically useful - we should remember that the aim is to devise rules that will minimise suffering (and whatever else we are ultimately trying to achieve). It is not that breaches of the rules, per se, are intrinsically wrong. A war is not worse if there are more breaches of the rules but less actual suffering. What makes war so bad is essentially the suffering that it causes.

I'm happy for there to be an international code of war crimes that is applied fairly inflexibly by a human rights tribunal or similar body, but any such code will have the status of positive law. It will not be a list of actions that "just are" intrinsically wrong, because there are no such actions.

Thus, we should aim to develop, through treaty-making and international bodies, a code that really is likely, in current circumstances, to minimise suffering. If the concepts found in just war theory do not provide us with the best code from that viewpoint, then they are not the concepts that we need. Even if the more detailed concepts of just war theory have been useful, historically, I can imagine that some changes will be required to deal with contemporary circumstances involving insurgency, terror, computerised weapon systems, asymmetrical tactics, humanitarian interventions, and so on.

Second, think of the situation where we are choosing new weapons systems. It is easy to imagine a weapons system (call it System X) that will both minimise the suffering in foreseeable wars (compared to some alternative System Y) and work in such a way that it sometimes tempts military personnel to breach whatever code of rules for the conduct of war is in place at the time. System X may do so by affecting the psychological outlook of some personnel in undesirable ways (perhaps because they are able to attack from greater distances, which may reduce feelings of empathy for the enemy).

What should we do in this situation, choose System X or System Y?

What if System X is likely to tempt our enemies into more breaches of the rules of war (perhaps it involves elaborate armour suits that make our personnel look less human, and so encourages our enemies to respond with less empathy; or perhaps its military effectiveness simply makes our enemies feel more desperate)? Imagine that, despite this drawback, it also makes our personnel so much more effective that they are able to fight in a way that reduces overall casualties on both sides. Imagine that it thereby reduces the total amount of suffering in the wars in which is used.

It is clear to me that, in these situations, we should introduce System X, rather than System Y. We should also train our personnel in such a way as to reduce their breaches of the rules of war. However, if adopting System X will foreseeably cause many, though relatively minor, breaches of the international code, while also reducing suffering overall, whereas System Y produces fewer breaches of the code, but only at the cost of forcing us to fight in a way that creates greater overall suffering, I know which system I prefer. The aim is always to reduce suffering, not to turn any positive legal code into a fetish.

The ultimate aim of all our policies is not to minimise the number of breaches of the positive code, whatever form it takes, even though we do want to reduce this number. There will be good grounds to enforce the code and to attempt to comply with it, but subject to the ultimate aim, which is always to reduce human suffering.

There is probably a good basis to conduct a thorough critique of just war theory, and perhaps even to debunk part of it. However, my point is not so much that we should be hostile to the theory; it is more modest than that. I merely wish to point out that any such theory needs to be given a naturalistic grounding in what we actually value (or fear, or disvalue, etc.). If some of the means we have historically adopted to reduce human suffering are in contradiction to the end, then we need to revise the means, rather than make the end subservient. If we are going to continue to rely on just war theory, we probably need to revise it, in order to bring it up to date.

I think there is an important project here for someone to carry out a rigorous critique of the uses and limitations of traditional just war theory in the circumstances confronting Western nations in the twenty-first century.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saletan on Sandel and human perfection

The New Tork Times review of Michael Sandel's The Case against Perfection by William Saletan gets things about half right, as Saletan says of Sandel himself. In fact, I'd go a bit further and say that Saletan gets things about two thirds right.

Saletan is generally correct when he comments on the relative weakness of many conventional arguments against human enhancement technologies. These arguments typically rely on such concepts as safety, coercion, exploitation, the nontherapeutic character of enhancements, or their likely unavailability to the poor. As Saletan observes, "Sandel rebuts these objections, pointing out that they’re selectively applied and can be technically resolved."

In fact, this may be rushing things somewhat, as some of the arguments being dismissed here have more power than Saletan acknowledges, and they at least demand of us that we find those technical resolutions, or the closest approximations available. Still, it is true that all such arguments have less force than is commonly acknowledged. With close philosophical scrutiny, we can largely debunk some of them, and with hard technical and political work we may be able to reduce the remaining problems to a point where they are far less threatening than popularly believed. Since there will be some gains, it's hard to be confident that we'll be worse off on balance. I expect that we'll be better off, though that can never be guaranteed, and even hardened transhumanist thinkers (more hardened than I am) need not be entirely optimistic about what will actually happen.

Still, these conventional arguments against enhancement are dubious at best. If some safety isssues, for example, remain intractable, that will close of certain options, but it will not provide a principled basis for us to reject enhancement technologies in toto.

While Saletan handles all this well, albeit briefly, he is actually more impressive when he demolishes Sandel's real arguments against enhancement, particularly the idea that some human practices would be distorted by the use of enhancement technologies. There's a deep problem here, as Saletan highlights.

If certain practices change, so do the expectations of their participants or (in the case of sports and entertainment) their audience. If theatre audiences no longer wish Broadway musicals to have certain features rather than others, or if sports fans no longer want to see American football played in certain ways that belong to a past era, why should we side with the purists, or old fogeys, or want things to happen as they once did? The spectacle of musical entertainment or elite sport changes when innovations such as sound amplification are introduced to the stage, or when it becomes possible to introduce gigantic linemen into the field of play. While Sandel may claim that the latter degrades the game of American football and the dignity of the players, it is not clear what firm foundation of values he has to stand on. New generations of fans, who have been socialised differently, will have different intuitions from Sandel's, and Sandel cannot claim that his just are right, as if he has a mysterious faculty that is tracking objectively prescriptive properties (properties that require us to value this approach to football rather than that one). By analogy, Saletan observes, we now accept coaching in athletics, despite concerns, back in the 1920s, about violating the spirit of amateur competition.

In short, times change, and with them people's socialised values. All this is likely to apply to practices that would change in the wake of enhancement technologies.

That does not mean that no values ever survive interculturally or intertemporally. All human societies need to keep order; all human societies need to give some place to the universal responsiveness of human beings to each other; more controversially, perhaps, all value such things as the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of creativity. But it is not true that all societies must place the same value on one method of exercising creativity rather than another - one particular set of conventions for Broadway musicals, for example. Not much weight can be placed on intuitions about the value of quite precise practices that vary over time or among contemporaneous societies.

As Saletan reports, Sandel tries to introduce a notion of "giftedness" to ground his intuitions about the value of practices that he wants to preserve. If the element of sheer chance is reduced, we will no longer view our talents as "gifts" in the same way, and this will alter our behaviour. (I actually think this is exaggerated, as there is no serious prospect of eliminating all chance elements that contribute to individuals' talents and realised abilities, but I'll let that issue go for the sake of argument.)

Perhaps a greater control of our own levels of ability, and those of our children, would place a greater responsibility on us to make certain decisions, but it is not clear why that is such a bad thing. Saletan says, interestingly, that, "Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness and a world of freedom and responsibility, I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow." I think he's right about this: times change, and people adapt to new technologies and standards. If the change damaged the functioning of social order or produced misery, there might be a case against it, but the mere addition of a new kind of responsibility does not appear to have either effect, so long as the people concerned are psychologically capable of dealing with it - which, as Saletan suggests, they may well be.

Where Saletan goes wrong, however, is in his sympathy with the idea that we could not know whether enhancement was perfecting us or diminishing us, since the meaning of perfection would, itself, evolve. The latter point is true, of course: there is no timeless, objective standard of "perfection" that we are always getting closer to, and our desires for greater capacities would themselves expand if our capacities expanded. Thus, we may never reach a situation where we are actually satisfied with the capacities that we have obtained. But so what? Saletan puts some weight on this, and suggests that it makes Sandel half right, but I don't see how. It appears to me that Sandel is not half right, and that Saletan himself is worrying unnecessarily. The reason for this is that no technology is ever introduced in an effort to achieve a statically-defined level of perfection. Consider ...

Technologies are generally invented to fulfil much more specific and limited desires, and they sometimes succeed in that respect. Then, notoriously, "the street finds finds its own uses for things" (per William Gibson): new technologies are often co-opted for other desires that their creators might not even have contemplated ... and this co-option may also be successful. It is in our nature to act in this way, attempting to augment our own powers, without having any static, definable, objective ideal of perfection in our sights. We do not judge technological progress by its approach to some such ideal. It is generally sufficient if technological innovations cater to some of the more constricted desires that we actually have.

Current human desires are always confined within certain horizons of what we can imagine, or think of as good for us, while the horizon of future human beings' desires will probably expand. So be it. Things have always been thus.

Of course, we might condemn a technological change if it did not merely alter a current practice that we enjoy, but recognise as ephemeral, such as the particular features looked for in Broadway musicals or in football players. Some technological change might have consequences that go beyond the alteration of particular practices (and, concomitantly, particular values and expectations). What if the change led to social breakdown or to human misery, or what if it (ironically perhaps) brought about a reversion to barbarism and ignorance? But Sandel does not make an argument along those lines, and I doubt that any such argument could be made. (I realise that television is accused of many ill effects, and the creation of a barbaric and ignorant audience may be among them, but I also think that this is wildly exaggerated by people with little sense of history.)

Sandel and Saletan have given us no reason to expect human enhancement to create a social breakdown. Nor is there a reason to feel compassion for the human beings of the future, with their very different socialisation, experience, and values. They are not suitable candidates for our compassion any more than we would be for those folks from the 1920s who did no wish to lose the spirit of amateur competition in athletics.

Nothing said by Sandel or Saletan provides any good argument for the moral condemnation or legal prohibition of postulated technologies such as human genetic engineering. Saletan's argument does succeed in bringing out why we might feel a sense of vertigo if we try to imagine the impossible situation in which literally everything is up for grabs, including our own deepest values. (Greg Egan's story "Reasons to be Cheerful" is a nice fictional representation of a character having the experience of something like this.) However, the feeling of vertigo is induced by contemplating a scenario that is not realistic. Even if we have a reason to avoid gaining such total control, we do not have a reason to avoid gaining the incrementally greater control - and still greater control, and slightly more still - that is likely to be possible. To mangle some words of Martha Nussbaum's, even if there are some races that we do not want to win totally, we may still have reason to run them and to seek whatever kind of victory is genuinely in the offing.

In short, Sandel's book has some useful things to say (about stem cell research for example), but he is nowhere near to being half right in his arguments about enhancement technologies. Times will change, and so will people, and so will what they value and desire (and fear). Meanwhile, there are some deep-seated, considered values of our own that we may not be prepared to think of as merely relative, though they are surely contingent on facts about our biological history. These include the survival of the social order and the relief of misery and suffering - but they are not the values that are stake in debates about human enhancement, certainly not in the debate as framed by Sandel.

Many of the arguments developed by bioconservatives are so wrong-headed that I have to wonder what is really behind them, especially when the arguments are used to support truly comprehensive and passionately-maintained opposition to certain technologies. I remain fascinated by the question of what motivates this kind of poorly-supported, yet clearly heart-felt, opposition, apart from a parochial commitment to how things have happened in the past. That, however, is a subject for more thought and research. Meanwhile, no argument yet produced by the bioconservatives persuades me that we cannot live with human enhancement technologies. Nothing persuades me that we won't benefit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Transhumanism seminars

I'm conducting three two-hour seminars on transhumanism, aimed at postgraduate and honours students, the first of which took place today. In that time, it's only possible to scratch the surface of the huge body of relevant literature, but I did put together a set of relevant readings, avoiding anything of book length except a recommendation of James Hughes's Citizen Cyborg. I wanted a set of materials that would introduce the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the transhumanist movement, provide participants with a sound basis from which to apply the law of expanding footnotes to get a more comprehensive picture of the literature, introduce some specific aspects of the controversy, and also, I must admit, frame some of the issues from my own particular viewpoint. Here is what I came up with.

World Transhumanist Association, "Transhumanist FAQ",

Nicholas Agar, "Liberal Eugenics", Public Affairs Quarterly 12 (2) (April 1998): 137-55.

—. "Whereto Transhumanism? The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass", Hastings Center Report 37, No. 3 (2007): 12-17.

G. Annas, L. Andrews, and R. Isasi, "Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alternations", American Journal of Law and Medicine 28, nos. 2/3 (2002): 151-78.

Ronald Bailey "Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea? Why striving to be more than human is human", Reason Online, August 25, 2004. http://www.reason.com/news/show/34867.html

F. Baylis and J. Robert. "The Inevitability of Genetic Enhancement Technologies", Bioethics 2004. 1-26.

Russell Blackford, "Who's Afraid of the Brave New World?" Quadrant 396 (May 2003): 9-15.

—. "Human Cloning and 'Posthuman' Society", Monash Bioethics Review 24 (2005): 10-26.

—. "Sinning against Nature: The Theory of Background Conditions", Journal of Medical Ethics 32 (2006): 629-34.

Nick Bostrom. "Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective", Journal of Value Inquiry 37 (2003): 493-506.

—. "A History of Transhumanist Thought", Journal of Evolution and Technology. 14 (2005): 1-25. http://jetpress.org/volume14/bostrom.html

—. "In Defense of Posthuman Dignity", Bioethics 19 (3) (2005), 202-214.

Dov Fox, "The Illiberality of 'Liberal Eugenics'", Ratio 20 (1) (2007), 1-25.

Leon R Kass, "Preventing a Brave New World: Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now", The New Republic 21 May 2001: 30-39.

Ronald A. Lindsay, "Enhancements and Justice: Problems in Determining the Requirements of Justice in a Genetically Transformed Society", Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 15 (1) (March 2005): 3-38.

M.J. McNamee and S.D. Edwards, "Transhumanism, Medical Technology and Slippery Slopes", Journal of Medical Ethics, 32 (2006): 513 - 518.

Michael J. Sandel, "The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering", The Atlantic Monthly, 293 (4) (2004): 51–62.

Next time, we'll look at the bioconservative pieces by Annas et al, Kass, and Sandel, plus Bostrom's "Posthuman Dignity" article. I had a small group, but some interesting discussion, so I hope for more of the same next week.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Consciousness emerges?

Via David Chalmers' blog,I came across this review by Jerry Fodor of a new book by Galen Strawson and others: Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. As Chalmers puts it, "Fodor comes surprisingly close to endorsing a form of property dualism with fundamental laws connecting physical processes and consciousness."

Now, philosophy of mind is not my research field. I teach some introductory philosophy of mind materials in a couple of the first-year-level subjects that I'm involved in from time to time, but I make no claim at all to being a philosopher of mind or to keeping up with the detail of the debates. I am, however, strongly inclined to an overall position of metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, in which all that exist are the phenomena (entities, properties, forces, space-time geometry, etc.) investigated by science. However, I've never understood why the sort of position that Fodor and Chalmers are describing is not compatible with philosophical naturalism.

The position for which Fodor expresses some sympathy is this:

I suppose one can imagine a world where all the big things are made out of small things, and there are laws about the small things and there are laws about the big things, but some laws of the second kind don’t derive from any laws of the first kind. In that world, it might be a basic law that when you put the right sorts of neurons together in the right sorts of way, you get a subject of consciousness. There would be no explaining why you get a subject of consciousness when you put those neurons together that way; you just do and there’s the end of it. Perhaps Strawson would say that in such a world, emergence would be a miracle; but if it would, why isn’t every basic law a miracle by definition?

Indeed, what we do seem to know is that consciousness actually exists: more precisely, I know that I am conscious, and I am prepared to assume that you are; the world simply makes much more sense if I do not adopt a position of solipsism, but work on the basis that at least those other beings who are much like me are conscious, though it is an open question how far down this extends. Are chimps conscious? Are cows? Alligators? Oysters? Paramecia? Still, the fact that I and the people I find myself associating with have conscious experience does indeed appear to be undeniable.

The next point is that it is difficult to explain how consciousness can emerge from matter merely by way of the kinds of physical laws that we know or are developing. It is hard to see how they can explain consciousness while making no reference to it. As Strawson and Fodor both discuss, it does not seem to be like liquidity, where, in principle, we seem to be able to explain the behaviour of liquid substances via an understanding of how molecules behave, which can be explained by how atoms behave and so on. Liquidity itself need never be mentioned: the basic laws will tell us how certain kinds of substances will coalesce and flow, etc. We can "eliminate" liquidity in a way that consciousness seems to be ineliminable.

All of this seems to entail that laws relating to the circumstances in which consciousness emerges from the functioning of some kinds of complex material substrates will have to refer to consciousness itself. Consciousness is not something that can be eliminated from the most basic equations. This, in turn, suggests that there are fundamental psychophysical laws that cannot be reduced to laws that do not mention consciousness.

But why is that so counterintuitive? It looks as if consciousness depends on matter, as if the nature of the dependence is lawful, and as if laws that never actually mention consciousness could not describe the dependence all by themselves. Does this not suggest that the laws governing the natural universe include irreducibly psychophysical ones?

Perhaps the worry is that these laws will be nothing like the fundamental laws of physics relating to, say, quantum events or the shape of space-time, but I'm not sure that that would trouble us if we were better placed to know more about what the psychophysical laws actually are. If we had some kind of handle on that, they might not seem any more intrinsically bizarre than anything else that science has discovered over the past 400-odd years.

The great difficulty that we face is that no one is in a position to observe consciousness directly (except his or her own). That makes it pretty much impossible to conduct experiments in which we predict that consciousness will be brought into being by such and such physical systems (in accordance with such and such conjectured psychophysical laws). Isn't that, however, just an epistemic limitation that we contingently labour under, no different in principle from the obvious fact that we are not well placed, epistemically, to determine such things as whether an alligator or an oyster is conscious? Yet, we accept the latter limitation on our knowledge and our ability to make progress. We may not like it, but we accept that it exists.

If all this reasoning goes through, the so-called Hard Problem of how to explain consciousness is, indeed, very difficult, but the difficulty is not that mind-boggling, entirely unknown, metaphysical concepts are needed. It is simply that, as an empirical fact, we are poorly situated to investigate (at least in any systematic manner) what regularities apply to the emergence of consciousness. Consciousness may be as much a part of the natural world as anything else, and as open, in principle, to causal explanation in terms of general laws. And yet, we might be in a situation where we are not well-placed to conduct the investigation and work out exactly what those laws are.

That would be unfortunate, of course, since it would mean that some scientific investigations would have to be recognised as very difficult for human beings to pursue to finality (indeed, it is hard to see how they could ever be pursued to finality, at least by us ... but who knows, in advance, the limits of our ingenuity?). It's unfortunate, yes. However, it doesn't seem especially counterintuitive or spooky. It is not letting in the supernatural, or anything as hard to conceive of at all as objective prescriptivity. It does not, for example, entail that full consciousness and all the associated cognitive capacities spring back into existence after a badly damaged brain is totally destroyed, that we are immortal, that there are substantial things ("minds") with no location in space, or more generally that consciousness is a substance that could survive independently of any material substrate (such as organised masses of neurons).

It would just be admitting that consciousness, though a part of the natural universe, cannot be eliminated from our most basic descriptions of how the universe operates, while also admitting something that seems plain anyway: the great contingent difficulty in working out for sure what physical systems are actually conscious and what systems are not. I could live with that. In fact, those admissions seem reasonably intuitive to my particular scientifically-aware sensibility.

This is a rare foray into philosophy of mind by someone who is relatively naive about the field, but I wonder what is actually wrong with the above analysis. Even if what I have sketched is a kind of dualism - a property dualism in that a new category of properties is being considered basic within the most fundamental laws governing the universe - I'm not sure that that is beyond the pale for philosophical naturalists. I am, of course, saying that there could be different degrees to which we are well- or ill-placed to investigate certain kinds of observed phenomena, but that does not seem very surprising, really, and it does not seem to constitute a betrayal of naturalism or of anything that I'd want to build on it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

No demonic attributes

Here's a couple of last photos from the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference: one of Nicole Vincent with, of all people, Russell Blackford, the other of Amanda Hickling (who looked truly demonic before I turned her pupils back to black).

Sandel against perfection

I just submitted a review of Michael J. Sandel's new book, The Case against Perfection, to the Monash Bioethics Review. The book is based on an article by Sandel that was published in The Atlantic Monthly back in 2004.

Sandel tries to convince us that it is a form of hubris to respond to life without recognising its "giftedness", but he flounders (so it seems to me) when he tries to translate this idea into secular terms. It's certainly true that we have not earned or deserved such things as our genetic potential, but that does not make them "gifts" which we'd be ungrateful to reject or to be dissatisfied with. Sandel's approach is totally inadequate as a basis for public policy.

I would like to make an observation that goes beyond the scope of merely reviewing Sandel's book, and which I therefore do not make in the review that I sent off to MBR. The dust-jacket blurb says, "Carrying us beyond the familiar terms of political discourse, this books contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." In fact, The Case against Perfection does not explicitly claim any such thing, but its whole drift is to give support to these views, since it relies on a concept of hubris as failing to appreciate the supposed giftedness of life, surely a "spiritual" idea, even if Sandel does make a weak attempt to find a secular justification for it.

It appears to me that many bioconservative thinkers of the left and the right are, indeed, trying to get religious and quasi-religious ideas onto the political agenda (and they are not alone when one considers the more egregious efforts of such organisations as the Discovery Institute). Furthermore they are achieving a good deal of success. This is nowhere more apparent than with issues relating to bioethics. Fortunately, Sandel is able to offer a defence of stem cell research from his point of view, but many other religious believers and sympathisers have attacked even that entirely benign practice. When it comes to more controversial possibilities, such as reproductive cloning, the temptation is to reach straight for some set of intuitions with an origin in religious or quasi-religious ways of thinking.

But there are a couple of elephants in this particular room. Are secular thinkers really going to be prepared to accept the legitimacy of public policy made from a "spiritual" viewpoint, even if it has electoral support? Once we are confronted with that situation, ideas about the tyranny of the majority come to mind. Furthermore, if political positions are going to be based on "spiritual" viewpoints, can we really continue to ignore the issue of the truth of such viewpoints? I believe that we must, in fact, grapple with the truth claims relied upon by spiritually-based participants in public debate, whether it be someone as generally reasonable as Sandel (I don't have to agree with him to see him as a generally reasonable person) or someone as extreme and dangerous as the world's Jerry Falwells and Ted Haggards. They may not like it, but we are entitled to argue that their policy views have no good foundation because they are based on metaphysical claims that are actually false.

As it is sometimes put, we can no longer avoid grappling with the epistemic content of spirituality and religion. That's why we need a new Enlightenment.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Happy birthday, dear Amanda

Some pics of the birthday girl herself (just the hands in one case) from Amanda Pitcairn's milestone birthday party. I couldn't resist adding one taken with me.

Birthday girl meets birthday cake.
The cake.
Birthday girl with camera.
Silver and gold: Russell Blackford and Amanda Pitcairn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Some photos from the AAP conference

I'll post some more when I manage to de-redeye some that would otherwise be pretty good.

Wall to wall philosophers.
Cameras everywhere.
Paul Biegler and Matt Fisher at the conference dinner.
Chris Jones.
Nicole Vincent looking thirsty but happy.
Bill Lycan and David Chalmers in the thick of things.
Amanda Hickling and Paul Biegler in serious conversation.
Paul Griffiths and John Doris.
The table behind us.
Even more philosophers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Humean limerick

Though an "is" alone won't give support
To a value, a norm, or an "ought",
If you mix on the fire
Both belief and desire,
You get thought of an "ought" of a sort.

I hope that any students who have been taught meta-ethics by me enjoy the above. It was actually inspired by a conference on norms and analysis (and specifically the relationship between naturalism and normativity) that I had to miss a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Back in town

After a long day on the road yesterday, Jenny and I are back in town. There's a fair bit of catching up to do here, but when I get a moment to scratch myself I'll post some photographs from the AAP conference and from Amanda Pitcairn's birthday festivities. I see that David Chalmers has a batch of photos from the conference on his site, including one with me looking quite Satanic ... with glowing red eyes.

I've kept up with Monash business by email, but there's a couple of referee reports that are desperately crying out to be written, so that's my task for the weekend. I also see that James Hughes has drafted an article about the IEET that I need to comment on. Next week, I start teaching again, though it's a light load this semester - just two tutorials a week (covering a first-year subject that involves, of all combinations, metaphysics and philosophy of sex) plus running one honours-level series of seminars on transhumanism. That's just as well, since I need to wrap up the Ph.D thesis as quickly as I can, and there's a fair bit of work to do to transform my current raw draft into something worth submitting for assessment (and trying to get published by a good academic press). I also have a scatter of speaking engagements through August - covering topics as diverse as religious vilification, the so-called "New Atheism", and designer babies - so it looks like being an interesting second half of 2007.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

AAP 2007

I spent last week at the 2007 Australasian Association of Philosophy's annual conference, held in Armidale this year. I'm still on the road, currently seeing loved ones in Newcastle.

When I get home, I'll post a selection of the photos that I took at the dinner on Thursday night. Some other folks, most notably David Chalmers, were also taking lots of photos, so I expect that the net will soon be crawling with pics from the conference.

Just briefly, the conference went well from my viewpoint. My own paper seemed to be well received, and attracted good discussion, though it had only a small audience (about a dozen people). That's always a peril of multi-strand programming, but then again there was always something of interest to me going on. A group of us seemed to form a small conference for moral and political philosophy (and, to some extent, philosophy of religion) within the larger conference.

I renewed some friendships, made some new contacts, and drank my share of Guinness during the evening visits to the White Bull Hotel. All in all, it was well worth taking the time.