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).

Monday, August 31, 2015

Minions makes a billion

Like any aficionado of supervillainy, I'm a fan of the Despicable Me franchise, the latest instalment of which is the prequel Minions - which I found hilariously funny when I saw it a few weeks ago. I see today that after this past weekend's takings Minions has now climbed to a global box office cume of over one billion US dollars. A lot of people must love those little yellow rascals.

New post at Cogito: "Philosophy versus science versus politics"

Over at Cogito, I have a new post where I explain the need for work and honesty if good arguments are to drive out bad arguments.

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Cogito post on the Ashley Madison data hack

I've written a post about this over at Cogito. Sample: "Whatever you think about adulterous liaisons – even if you regard them as outrageous, destructive, morally wicked breaches of trust – this sort of vigilante justice is unacceptable. When vigilantes set out to punish sinners or wrongdoers, the results can be perverse, disproportionate, sometimes extreme and often irreversible. Even the supposed victims of wrongdoers may end up worse off."

Let me put this out there...

The following can apply to a whole range of situations. All the following propositions can be simultaneously true:

1. A group of people can have some genuine - or at least arguable - grievances. Some, or even much, of what they are trying to say in their complaints may be true. As a complication, groups of people may have grievances against each other.

2. Those people can express their grievances in hyperbolic language and/or via disproportionately harmful or disruptive tactics.

3. The criticisms of those people can then be excessive, disproportionate, and unfair - perhaps out of anger at their language and tactics or perhaps in an attempt to avoid addressing the original grievances.

4. There is then scope for the situation to escalate and complicate indefinitely, as everyone involved feels aggrieved and perceives opponents as unfair (or worse). Everyone has feelings of having been done some sort of injustice.

In the various culture wars (and real wars) that we see, there are often elements of all of this. If the people in 1. are behaving sufficiently upsettingly, as in 2., there may be some priority in stopping them doing that. But if their grievances have even a grain of truth, they had better be dealt with honestly sooner or later. Simply demonizing the people, perhaps to avoid giving their grievances and their arguments any legitimacy at all, is harmful and unfair.

What you think this post is all about may depend on what controversies you have been following or are involved in. I'm actually thinking of a several situations. Indeed, something like this is a common pattern. Knowing that is one thing. Doing something about it that might be effective is another. Still... some general awareness can't hurt.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hugo Awards outcome - this is all I am going to say

The outcome is not far from my take on it all back in July. But it has still been a mess. Hopefully, no more Sad Puppies, etc., next year. As always, if someone has a grievance, explain it logically and reasonably. Convince us. Don't be a spoiler. Don't engage in these sorts of spiteful antics.

I joined as a supporting member of the worldcon this year specifically so I could have a say in the voting. I didn't vote in many categories, but was able to vote where I did have clear views on the merits. I don't feel vindicated, or anything of the sort, by the outcome. The fact is, the awards were pretty much sabotaged by all this nonsense. My more detailed views are in the July post, if you want them, and I won't repeat them here.

One-day philosophy conference in Melbourne

I'm just back from a one-day philosophy conference in Melbourne, convened by Preshil and aimed at Year 12 philosophy students. It was held at the University of Melbourne, and it focused on issues relating to bioethics and technoethics.

I had a great time - I always enjoy interacting with smart young adults who have an interest in philosophy - and I was honoured to be part of a small cast of guest speakers whose other members were Julian Savulescu, Rob Sparrow, and (via Skype) Luciano Floridi. Julian and Rob certainly sparked off each other! The Preshil people looked after us well, and the whole day was a joy to be involved in.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

IHEU open letter to Prime Minister and President of Bangladesh

This open letter, organised by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has been signed by numerous individuals, including me.

It protests the attacks on humanists, atheists, and secularists, including the brutal murders of five bloggers in the past two year - four of them since February this year. Note that the government of Bangladesh is deeply complicit in the culture of violent suppression of humanist/atheist/secular thought. For example, as stated in the letter:
Furthermore, your Cabinet Committee for Law and Order, headed by Minister of Industries Amir Hossain Amu, on their 9 August 2015 meeting decided “to declare Atheist authors as criminals”, thereby making them subject to prosecution, and intelligence agencies have been asked to monitor blogs to find those atheist writers. Even under the current law, such a mass arrest of people who profess non-religious views in their online communications would represent a grave violation of the international human rights obligations to which Bangladesh is committed. The Home Minister in a separate speech was seen repeating the same warning message.
The letter concludes by imploring the Prime Minister and President to take decisive steps to ensure the safety of individuals whose lives are threatened by religious extremists, and to ensure Bangladesh's compliance with international norms relating to freedom of conscience and expression.

Please check out the full text, which contains much detail about the present deplorable situation in Bangladesh.

"The important thing is that you get to feel superior to both..." - a frustrating, dangerous meme

This is a meme that I am heartily sick of.

In Ron Lindsay's post about prostitution on the CFI site yesterday, he addresses what he sees as rival preconceptions that hinder the debate. One of the first comments is:
The important part here, is that Ron gets to tell everyone they are doing feminism wrong: the pro sex workers and the anti-sex workers. Well done!
Just great. Although Ron is a friend of mine, I wouldn't comment on just this one cynical remark. The problem is that this kind of remark has become a recurrent motif on the internet, hindering the efforts of anyone who searches for common ground, tries to clarify issues, attempts to understand the underlying causes of polarisation on issues, and so on.

Often when we are looking at current controversies we will see polarisation, with both of the main sides making assumptions that lack solid empirical support. Often we'll find that both sides are engaging in tribalism, and thus giving a free pass to dubious arguments (while punishing opponents). Often both sides are engaging in propaganda exercises: attempting to deceive us and/or manipulate our emotions, rather than appealing to our intellects with relevant evidence and cogent logic. Often both sides are, at least to some extent, displaying a certain amount of conceptual confusion and/or trading on equivocations (and the reasons for this may be apparent - they may, for example, include the genuine complexity of the issues and their hot-button emotional salience for those involved in the debate).

Attempts to cut through all this and obtain some clarity - without prior commitment to one or other of the main rival tribes - are valuable. It's difficult to do this, both intellectually and socially (since it can be a good way of becoming distrusted, and perhaps even demonised, by both sides of an argument).

We need to encourage more of it, and to find ways of rewarding people who are prepared to attempt the task. But so often, instead, we get cynical comments, such as the one I quoted, to the effect that the person doing this is merely finding a way of feeling superior to other participants. Give me a break.

This meme is frustrating, discouraging, anti-intellectual, and even dangerous, since it punishes a socially valuable impulse.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ron Lindsay on the debate over prostitution

Ron Lindsay, the Center for Inquiry's president and CEO has a good, thoughtful, balanced post on sex work - provoked by the recent (and continuing) decision-making processes within Amnesty International.

Once again, I wrote about this at Cogito a few days ago, setting out some of the detail relating to what has happened at Amnesty International. I'm planning to write a follow-up post, but it will probably be along similar lines to Ron Lindsay's.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Jurassic World still roars

I see at Box Office Mojo this morning that Jurassic World has now passed a figure of $1.6 billion for its global takings at the box office. It is now well ahead of The Avengers for third place as an all-time money spinner, and it hasn't quite run out of steam.

It's behind only Avatar and Titanic, although it has no chance of catching up with those two hugely successful  movies directed by James Cameron. (And I always put all this in perspective by pointing out that if we were to talk in inflation-adjusted terms there would be a different order: Gone with the Wind still rules, in real terms, as the most commercially successful movie ever).

Despite the failure of Terminator: Genisys at the box office - and the far worse failure of Fantastic Four - 2015 is shaping as an extraordinarily lucrative year for the movie industry, with a new movie from the Star Wars franchise yet to come.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cogito post on Amnesty International and the prostitution debate

Over at Cogito, I've written a post on Amnesty International and the current debate about prostitution.

The point of the post is not so much to defend a preferred regulatory policy of my own for prostitution - though I hope to return to that at some point - as to introduce a bit of clarity into what is going on, and about the problems when philosophers try to comment on such issues. If you check it out, you'll see that I at least make an attempt to get the (complicated) facts straight. That's more than you could say for a lot of commentators on the issue.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

FFINO? - Fantastic Four in name only?

For a hugely expensive Hollywood blockbuster, Fantastic Four (the reboot of the franchise) has failed terribly at the box office with an American opening weekend pulling in "only" $26.2 million. That's a huge sum of money, of course, but only about half what would be needed for a movie of this kind to be modestly successful. It is dwarfed by the record, currently held by Jurassic World, of over $208 million. In short, this looks like a disaster for the franchise and the producers.

I haven't yet seen the movie, so I don't know whether it's as bad as the word on the streets about it. Everything I hear, though, and everything I see in the marketing, gives me a bad feeling. There's a sense that we could call this movie FFINO - "Fantastic Four in name only". I'm averse to seeing it (though I'll probably drag myself along as something of a completist about these things), because I have no faith that the spirit of the original source material will be honoured, or that it will capture anything of what made Fantastic Four great - and so popular - back in the 1960s. I get a sense that no one involved really "gets" the source material, or has faith in it.

Perhaps I'm wrong. When I see it, maybe I'll change my mind.

But there's an issue here as to whether a set of ideas (and especially the character relationships) that worked so well in the 1960s can be translated to the 2010s. Perhaps too much of what is at the heart of Fantastic Four depended on the culture of its time. In particular, the signature villain of the series, Doctor Doom, may not translate naturally to the contemporary cinema screen. Although Doom became the model for other great characters - notably Magneto and Darth Vader - perhaps Doom himself is too over-the-top (evil dictator of a central European country, wears sinister-looking medieval armour, talks in a grandiloquent way, etc.), while the layers of complexity added to him in the diegesis of the comics are just, well, too complex for a movie.

Perhaps the lovable quirks of the Fantastic Four themselves - Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl (later Invisible Woman), the Human Torch, and the Thing - are too tied to 1960s culture, so movie makers choose to alter the characters drastically in an attempt to make them relevant. But all that said, the creators involved with the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been able to capture much of the original look and feel of The Avengers and related characters, and it has worked handsomely. I can't believe that it would be that difficult to create a viable version of the Fantastic Four and their supporting cast, while sticking fairly closely to the source material.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Savulescu on Steven Pinker's challenge to bioethics

Julian Savulescu has written a good piece in response to Steven Pinker - I think I can probably agree with all of this.

My own response on the Cogito blog is more long-winded, though in partial defence of that I was trying to set up a broader, more metaphilosophical argument. Savulescu needn't endorse that broader argument, of course, but I think these two pieces and the original op-ed by Pinker can all be taken to complement each other.

Another response that I recommend is Alice Dreger's: it has many useful observations.

Newest issue of The Philosophers' Magazine

The newest issue of TPM arrived here yesterday. It includes my review (slightly, but not horribly, technical) of Stephen Finlay's Confusion of Tongues - an important contribution to contemporary metaethics. It also has much other stuff that looks interesting, some of which I'll probably write about separately.

Axel Alonso addresses sexuality of Marvel's Hercules

Marvel's editor-in-chief responds to criticism in his weekly "Axel-In-Charge" interview. The bottom line is that Marvel does not have a closed mind on this, which is good.

New post at Cogito on Steven Pinker's challenge to bioethics

"Locking horns over bioethics: The challenge from Steven Pinker."

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Pinker to bioethicists - "Keep out of the way!"

A provocative article by Steven Pinker here - I largely agree with him.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Another small storm about a bisexual male hero

This article by Robert Karjel is a bit self-serving, so I take it with a grain of salt (as I do much of what I read online). Still, it has a certain ring of truth to this extent: I think it's apparent that a lot of readers/viewers, etc., cannot yet handle the idea of bisexual male characters. No wonder that there might be some reticence from publishing houses, movie studios, and the like. These producers of popular culture can just about cope with gay men and lesbians - and even with female bisexuality (there's an obvious story about that) - but male bisexuality remains pretty much taboo.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Hercules' sexuality in the Marvel Universe

Interesting article here on Marvel's version of the Greek hero/god Hercules (yes, yes, Heracles in the original Greek myths).

I don't know why it was considered necessary to state explicitly that Hercules in the main Marvel Universe is straight, rather than bi, especially when there is a strong in-universe suggestion that he once had sex with Northstar. I get that they don't need to go out of their way to explore any gay side of the character in the new Hercules series that they're launching soon, but that does seem like an unnecessarily clear-cut answer by Alex Alonso, given that many fans enjoy the suggestion that the character is bisexual.

This is NOT, Zeus help us, meant to contribute to some kind of pile on or cybermob. We see far too many of those. It's not that big a deal, especially when Marvel has gone to a fair bit of trouble in recent years to be supportive of the gay community. It's just something that didn't have to be thrown away so easily... and there's a general sense, I think, that Marvel is still reticent about giving support to bisexual men.

Edit (August 8): Follow up here.