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).

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Forthcoming speaking engagements

I've just been taking stock of my future gigs for another purpose. I think this is all that I have booked up for the moment. Some of these are open to the public, but others are not. The next one is a staff seminar for Philosophy and Religious Studies, in a couple of days (or as I just know Ophelia would prefer, a couple of days' time).

Then a similar topic the following evening at the Socrates Café forum at Berkelouw Books in Newtown (starting 6.30).

I'll be on various items at the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, in early September, but at this stage I can only list one as locked in with a definite (I think) date and time. Other things will doubtless crop up during this time period: some of them are known unknowns and some are unknown unknowns.

Here's the full list as best as I can put it together right now.

10 August 2010: "Moral Scepticism and its Implications." School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, seminar (Newcastle).

11 August 2010: "Why Morality is a Myth: How to be a Moral Sceptic and Still Be A Good Person." Berkelouw Books (Sydney).

25 August 2010: "Separation of Church and State." University of Newcastle Atheist Society (Newcastle).

5 September 2010: "Science Fiction and Technoscience: A Love/Hate Relationship." World Science Fiction Convention (Melbourne).

11 September 2010: "Survival Beyond the Flesh." Singularity Summit AU (Melbourne).

14 September 2010: "Living in a World Without Objective Values." Atheist Society (Mebourne).

21 September 2010: "The New Atheism." Crossway Conference (Melbourne).

1 February 2011: "Thomas Pynchon." Existentialist Society (Melbourne).


DM said...
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DM said...
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Mark Sloan said...


I would particularly like to attend your August 11 talk “Why Morality is a Myth: How to be a Moral Sceptic and Still Be A Good Person” but am too many thousand miles away to make that a sensible option.

Any chance your talk will be posted somewhere?

I assume you will be describing a position similar to Michael Ruse. I understand Ruse’s position to be something like 1) our moral emotions are the products of biological evolution, 2) our cultural moral standards are the products of what can be called cultural evolution (but cultural evolution is not yet settled science and ‘memes’ are a mistaken start at that), and 3) “therefore” morality is an illusion.

I don’t buy the idea that morality is either an illusion or a myth. It seems to me morality exists due to a fundamental aspect of our physical universe: that there are common circumstances in which there are synergistic benefits for cooperation between independent agents. Game theory defines strategies (‘kin’ altruism, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, and others) for even fully self centered agents to exploit these benefits. Biological evolution first exploited these strategies to create our moral emotions, and then cultural evolution (however that works) again exploited these strategies by selecting moral standards like the Golden Rule based on their ability to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Both our biology and cultural moral standards work together to motivate people to act unselfishly and thereby increase the benefits of cooperation (to act morally).

If moralities are strategies and heuristics for exploiting a simple aspect of the nature of physical reality, how can it be useful to describe morality as an illusion or a myth?

Or perhaps the myth you refer to is that some source exists of justificatory force for accepting the burdens of any morality (beyond rational choice)? That I can agree with.

Blake Stacey said...

Ooh! Thomas Pynchon! Unfortunately, I'll be on the wrong side of the world for it . . . Do you know if any of these talks will be taped?

brian said...

14 September 2010: "Living in a World Without Objective Values." Atheist Society (Mebourne).
My birthday. What synergy! Do you have time and location? Though I might be doing something with the family...

Russell Blackford said...

Mark - the title is not actually mine, and it is obviously provocative and paradoxical (and has a nod to Richard Joyce's book The Myth of Morality). Nonetheless, I've accepted it as a title, as it's more dramatic than my own suggestion (we're trying to attract an audience to the talk) and because the seeming paradox allows me to make the points I want to make. My position is not remote from Ruse's, but it's based on J.L. Mackie's work.

You make the point in your last paragraph that there's a myth that morality has an objective justificatory force, and yes something like that is indeed the "myth" referred to in the title.

The material won't be published online, I hope. I eventually want to work the ideas up into a refereed journal article or even a book, so I don't want to put the former at risk by publishing it widely another form. Still, the ideas will be fairly familiar to regular readers of this blog.

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, at the Unitarian church hall in Grey Street, East Melb. at 8 pm.

Anonymous said...

Ever coming to Canberra?

Amanda said...

Russell, which Berkelouw Books is it? There are about 4 in Sydney and it doesn't say on their website. Would love to rock up for it.

Amanda said...

Oh ignore me! It says right there in the post. D'oh. Anyway, its the one closest to me so that's good.

Nathan said...

I'd also like to come to your Sydney event, can you mention the time when you answer Amanda's Question :)

Also, you might want to consider banning that DM fellow, I'm for free speach very nearly as much as you are, but think limiting by sanity is a good compramise. He's quite obvously not attempting a discussion.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I'd come to such things but these events are limited in discussion and thinking from my experience --

Sometimes Russell the views are just too narrow for me -- never liked such things. I think it might have something to do with my anti-social behaviour and dislike of authority

Russell Blackford said...

You're funny, Rob - I would have though that discussion of such topics as whether our commonsense ideas of morality are mistaken in some way, and need to be revised, pushed the envelope of discussion rather than narrowing it. These are hardly ideas that are promoted by those with political or social authority.

But each to his own.

On the question about Canberra - I'm happy to speak there if invited. The thing is, I need to have my costs covered if I'm going to speak outside the Sydney-Newcastle area. Or else you'll have to catch me at a time when I'm there anyway.

I visit Melbourne quite frequently, because that's where the majority of my close friends live (since I lived there for 30 years and shifted from there less than a year ago) but even so I'm increasingly going to have to insist on my expenses being covered even for gigs in Melbourne. I'm very seldom paid any fee for speaking engagements, and that's bearable in itself, but there's a limit to how much I can afford to run at a loss. After the Existentialist Society gig in February, I think I'm going to have to draw a line under it and say that from now on I need my expenses covered at least for anything out of Newcastle/Sydney.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Russell I have had some discussion about morality or the limitation and restrictions of some of its falsehoods but I am not sure about some of the base points these discussions start from:

Some start from a biblical type moral position and then try and expand outwards from this - this is limiting as the expansion is governed by often misguided data and understandings and the falsehood of some positions is only ex[panded upon ending up no better than the initial start point.

Morality is not a new thing, it was in existance in the cave - basic but effective. It expansion and use went through many alteration, morality even changed the face of belief systems - moralty changed how the Christian religion developed - it isn't a creation of faith, it is just something faith and religions were able to propogate widely in populations.

But, my anti=law manner, crazy as that sounds, makes it difficult for me to blame a religion for todays moral compass and understandings - the spread is so wide and so deep that it would take years just to understand why some morals are accepted and some not...

I am sure your discussion will be enlightening but as I have said, I have had discission like this with well learnered atheist on the subject and I am afraid I found narrow rather than wide views --

my main complaint - if I ever hear some one say 'show me the evidence'again, I will probably use several expletives to explain it to them.

Adele said...

Russell, is the talk tomorrow at the University open? If yes, what time does it begin, and where is it being held?

Russell Blackford said...

Adele, it's just a very small seminar tomorrow. I guess you could come along if you sent me some details on yourself by email and I checked it out first with Joe Mintoff, but it's not a public thing. It's at 1.30 p.m. in room MC102 (I'm not actually sure where that is).

The gig on the 25th is open to the public as far as I know, though it's a very different topic.

Rob, I really don't know what some your comments have to do with what we're discussing. I know you mean well, but still ... Mate, sometimes you seem to have an urge to express dissent from my overall worldview whether it's an appropriate time to or relevant to what is being discussed or not. I don't turn up at your place (I assume you have a blog and you certainly have a Facebook profile) and do that to you. What's the problem?

Now, if you'd like to discuss the representation of science and technology in science fiction that might be interesting. I know you know something about that.

Adele said...

Ah, unfortunately I will be in class. It sounds fantastic though; good luck :)

DM said...
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Robert N Stephenson said...

Oh Russell, I am well known for venturing into the pot a little to see what bubbles up... rightly or wrongly it is just how I get information...

I don't aim for discent generally, it is just everyone gets so agreeable around here I wonder.... though the earlier blog post did get heated I see; to what purpose I don't know, but it all seemd rather us and them at the time so I just offered a woo hoo...

I know, it is argued that morality as inforced on people today or as in delivered to people is said to be based on religious controls - if this is not part of your discussion then I am sorry, but it often is in atheist discussion on the concept of morals...

Maybe I hope you venture deeper than this base point, that is all, as moral concepts are older than religion and the idea of right and wrong was well intrenched when the first belief systems emerged...

Granted religion profitted and refined some standings -- if you are taking a totally non religious view then you are heading the right way, but if you are using religion as a catalist for change, then personally, and that is only my view, a lot of good base points will get missed to strengthen the nod religious moral or ethical position.

And Russell, this is the hellfire club is it not? SO what harm could a little hellfire actually do? Really?

March Hare said...

Mark Sloan just put an idea into my head while talking about game theory:

Morality is like economics. We have an intuitive understanding of the basics, which are easily fooled and often wrong. We can work out scenarios which provide outcomes which benefit none, one or more of the participants and, without coming in with an illegitimately pre-conceived idea about what the aim is, we have no way of deciding which scenario is 'best'. We can have rules and theories and even put them to the test but, ultimately, there has to be some 'decider' (vote, dictator, holy book, etc.) which gets to select what the aim is (most efficient, highest utility, least worst solution[Pareto], etc.).

I like this as it fits in with my view that morality can be judged objectively using various metrics but that those metrics cannot be selected or weighted objectively. (Which is where Sam Harris' new book is gonna fall down as he tries to explain human flourishing as an objective measurement that all moral judgments should be measured against.)

Russell Blackford said...

I like this as it fits in with my view that morality can be judged objectively using various metrics but that those metrics cannot be selected or weighted objectively.

Yes, or even if they can be, it will be using a metric that itself cannot be selected or weighed objectively. Objectively eventually runs out, but the word "eventually" is an important one.

March Hare said...

Thanks Russell, I should have added that.

The point I am getting at is that while we cannot have an objective discussion about whose morality (or economics) is right, we should continue the investigation and try to form a decent science of morality so that we understand the outcome of various moral choices.

That way when I have a moral discussion with someone while I cannot say his aims are 'wrong' I can show what the outcomes of his moral views will be compared to mine. Very occasionally one set will be Pareto better than the other but more often you will be able to show the trade offs in some metrics for the improvements in others.

This, it seems to me, is the best way forward on having discussions. The only problem is that some people weight certain metrics so high (following their holy book) compared to everyone else that discussion with them is pointless. e.g. For many people who believe FGM is ordered by God there is no amount of physical and mental harm you can show that would convince them it was wrong. However for moderates we can actually convince each other that our positions are wrong, or at least have an understanding of of each others values, why we hold certain positions and the best way to convince each other.

This is why, while I think Sam Harris' aim is ultimately flawed, I think the work should continue to enable the conversation. e.g. There is no 'right' economics, but we have to attempt to understand how economic decisions will affect things before we can make an informed decision on, or have a discussion about, the best allocation of resources.