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, May 30, 2016

Following up on Immortal Engines

As previously noted I've been reading Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin. My impression remains, as I said in the previous post on this, that science fiction (not to mention literary fantasy) tends to be hostile to the ideas of immortality and life extension.

In "Alienation as the Price of Immortality" (pp. 125-34), S.L. Rosen discusses the unsympathetic approaches taken to immortality in Anglophone science fiction and fantasy. After identifying the negative way in which immortality is treated, especially when it is deliberately sought, this piece concludes that "The implication is that there is a basic cultural rejection of the idea of immortality and longevity."

However, some of the book's chapters do identify work within the SF field that presents immortality more positively. Perhaps surprisingly, some feminist SF falls into this category, not to mention more obvious examples such as Robert A. Heinlein's Lazarus Long.

I was surprised at the book's introduction by Rabkin, who is especially hostile - almost abusive - in his attitude to very the idea of immortality. This attitude may typify what we find in most science fiction and fantasy - and in much other literary work - but as I noted above there are exceptions, and in any event it's startling to see a literary scholar, writing in that capacity, lay out such a position, in such a tone, on a substantive moral and philosophical issue. He concludes by asserting that "Immortality is a self-defeating fantasy, a desperate defense against death."

Well, perhaps he's right. But not everyone agrees, and he doesn't put much in the way of argument for his position: it's more a matter of quoting various literary texts that he thinks support it. In any event, the introduction to such a volume would normally lay out the themes and issues to be discussed, giving some idea of what is going to be covered in the various chapters to follow. It's not a big deal that Rabkin has departed so far from expectations on this occasion, but it does look cranky and odd.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gawker's gutter journalism - and worries about freedom of speech

(This article was originally published on The Conversation on 17 July 2015. I am republishing it because of subsequent - including very recent - issues surrounding Gawker and its interpretation of free speech. Read the original article.)

Over the past 24 hours, Gawker, the controversial gossip blog owned by Gawker Media, has earned some extraordinary and entirely justified opprobrium. It brought this on itself by posting a prurient and cruel story about the alleged sexual conduct of a finance executive employed by rival media company Condé Nast.

The link I’ve provided above is not to Gawker’s site, but to an archived copy of the particular post. Given the way this news story has gone viral, I cannot protect the name of the individual accused of hiring a gay prostitute, but I can at least do something to minimise adding clicks on Gawker’s site. Though it will have little effect, I likewise won’t name the smeared person. That will mean one less direct link between his name and Gawker’s allegations. Still, the damage has been done: there is little we can do ameliorate it, since the post has already been seen by a vast online audience.

Gawker’s prurient post

As Yezmin Villarreal accurately describes the Gawker post (writing at Advocate.com), it alleges that a named finance executive “tried to hire a gay porn star for sex at a cost of $2,500.” Villareal adds, again accurately, “The [Gawker] story contains screenshots of text messages and photos that allegedly identify the man, who is married to a woman and has children.”

The man concerned is a senior executive in a large company, but he is not a politician or in any other sense a public figure. He is not a morals campaigner, or an anti-gay campaigner, or a person who could justly be accused of public hypocrisy if the allegations turned out to be true. Even if there could be some circumstances in which such a post might be justified - which I doubt - this is remote from them. The post appears to be pure clickbait, displaying a callous, if not outright malicious, attitude to an individual and his family.

Worries about freedom of speech

I am a free speech advocate, a somewhat prominent one. I’m very suspicious of government censorship, and I strongly support the rights of artists, intellectuals, and ordinary people to express themselves frankly and fearlessly.

Even where government censorship is not involved, I worry when I see ideas, opinions, and cultural productions (such as literary and artistic works) interpreted unfairly or censoriously. In many cases, I’ll defend individual speakers and artistic creators, and their books and movies, and the full range of cultural productions that can have meanings and influence our thoughts. In those many cases, I ask for a degree of charity, sensitivity, and complexity of interpretation sufficient to give writers, speakers, artists - and ordinary people - their due.

I can’t, however, say much in defence of Gawker, particularly when it is Gawker and its author that have used a very large public platform to single out and smear a specific private individual. To me, it’s gratifying that so many voices are being raised in that person’s defence and against Gawker’s actions.

Still, these sorts of situations can test our understanding of freedom of speech, and perhaps also challenge our commitment to it. We might wonder what redress someone should have when treated in this way. Perhaps he will be able to sue for defamation, but this is difficult in the US, and I expect it will be impossible if the allegations are, indeed, true. Should he be able to obtain redress in the courts? Mightn’t freedom of speech argue against that?

My view is that in an extreme case such as this, where there has been such a deliberate and potentially devastating intrusion on an identifiable individual’s privacy - and from an author with such a large platform - some legal redress should be available. Indeed, it should be available whether the allegations are true or not.

That view may surprise some people who know me as a free speech advocate, but allow me to explain.

Free speech - what’s it all about?

Reflection on such cases can sharpen our conceptions of what free speech is about: of what it is actually for. Speaking for myself, and not for other free speech advocates, I defend a conception rather different from those I often see from political libertarians. I am less fixated on the power of governments; I am less absolutist in opposing restrictions; but at the same time, I worry about a wider range of threats. I worry not only about state power but also threats from private power and popular opinion. Above all, I am concerned to protect the free exchange of opinions and ideas, whether the free exchange is impeded by state power or by power of other kinds.

This can lead to a more subtle and difficult analysis than the simple attitude of: “Government censorship bad; everything else okay.”

Governments can, of course, restrict the exchange of opinions and ideas, and they frequently strive to do so. They wield frightening powers, including the power to imprison and sometimes even the power to kill, and this should make us especially vigilant about their actions. Liberal-minded people - people thinking and working within the great traditions of liberal political theory - will thus be concerned about government censorship of opinions, and more generally about the use of government power to stifle discussion and debate (somewhat related to this, we are also concerned about government attempts to control literature and the arts).

With all that duly acknowledged, much speech contains little in the way of opinions or ideas (and displays little artistic merit of any kind). Even in those cases, I lean strongly against government interference. General considerations relating to individual liberty remain important, especially considerations relating to the value of expressing our thoughts and personalities without fear. Thus, I defend a broad scope for freedom of speech, even of speech that possesses little discernible value except to someone who is letting off emotional steam.

But I have never been an absolutist about repealing all laws restricting, for example, defamation, hate speech, and commercial pornography. In all these cases, I am willing to look at proposals on their merits, though I generally want less - rather than more - government restriction. I don’t rule out all possible restrictions: there can be categories of speech that are patently harmful and vanishingly unlikely to have countervailing value of some kind.

John Stuart Mill and On Liberty

In the case of speech that defames individuals, I support tight limits on what sorts of speech can justify damages awards from the courts. There is no contradiction in adding that there is actually an arguable case for defamation law to be more accessible in the narrow range of cases where it should apply.

When we’re dealing with such issues, it can be helpful to wonder what John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty (1859), might have thought. On Liberty is not an infallible holy text, or anything at all analogous, but Mill pondered such issues deeply, and his body of work contains much wisdom that remains useful.

Mill was concerned with what he called a “liberty of thought and discussion” about topics of general interest. He supported a strong freedom to hold and share opinions on those topics, without suppression by the government or the less formal tyranny of popular opinion and feeling. He did not require that the participants in social discussion maintain an unnatural standard of politeness and detachment, but nor did he support the publication of damaging lies about other individuals, or even of damaging truths about them that invaded their privacy. The Millian argument for freedom of speech does not go so far - though, in another dimension, it goes further than a concern with state censorship.

Accordingly, Mill would have opposed censorship of ideas by the government; importantly, he would also have opposed social actions, such as organised boycotts, of people merely for their opinions on general topics. He would not, however, have required that we put up with all attacks on individual citizens' reputations and private lives. For example, Mill’s name cannot be invoked to oppose a law against “revenge porn”.

Revenge porn has nothing to do with opinions on topics of general interest, but everything to do with maliciously attempting to harm a disliked individual. I doubt strongly that Mill would oppose laws against it if he were alive today. Revenge porn is not part of liberty of thought and discussion.

How to think about gutter journalism

In the case of gutter journalism, such as Gawker’s post on the unfortunate Condé Nast executive, I see nothing in Mill’s conception of liberty of thought and discussion that could be used in its defence. Nor does gutter journalism of this kind merit defence for any artistic or literary merit, for any complexity that is worth prizing, or for any other serious kind of value that it might be imagined to have.

The harm that can be caused by such writing is not remote, indirect, or speculative. This is exactly the sort of publication that can obviously ruin an identifiable person’s life (and the lives of family and loved ones). Free speech advocates need not, and should not, defend gutter journalism.

It may be difficult to frame appropriate laws. In principle, however, even free speech advocates can support narrow laws to protect individuals from the worst attacks (they can do so even while working to reduce unwarranted kinds of censorship).

Though this is not a case of revenge porn, my free speech advocacy does not prevent me from - for example - supporting narrowly and clearly drafted revenge porn laws. Nor should it prevent me from supporting laws against other extreme kinds of personal smearing or violation of individual privacy.


Beyond legal solutions, with their undoubted problems of interpretation, accessibility, and enforcement, and their frequent unforeseen consequences, we can do more. In particular, we can work to marginalise individuals and organisations that engage in the most serious kinds of defamation, public shaming of individuals, and invasion of people’s private lives.

Even if there’s seldom legal redress against Gawker and others of a similar ilk, we can agree to regard them, and to speak of them freely, as the callous and anti-social institutions that they are.

Edit (18 July 2015): An outcry - of which this post was a small, and surely insignificant, part - has led Gawker to remove the offending post from its site. That’s a welcome acknowledgment of acting badly. However, it’s too late to help the individual concerned. Further, the problem extends well beyond one post and well beyond Gawker. Further edit (29 May 2016): In republishing this, I am removing the (now dead) link to Gawker's original article.

The Conversation

Monday, May 23, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse - review (no spoilers)

First, as per the title of this post, there are no significant spoilers in the review that follows. Still, don't read on if you want a totally unspoiled experience of X-Men: Apocalypse, as it's difficult to say anything meaningful without giving away, or hinting at, at least something.

That was your last chance.

Second, with that much said, I loved this movie.

I can't recall when I last walked out of a cinema feeling quite so joyful and exhilarated. Despite the dark aspects throughout (relieved by some fun and humour), and despite the large-scale destruction portrayed in many scenes, X-Men: Apocalypse delivers in a way that will leave fans of its characters ecstatic. In my post yesterday, I linked to a YouTube review by Grace Randolph in which she spoke of the many scenes that will excite fans, all of which are earned by what precedes them and sets them up. She's exactly right. The ways in which the pay-offs are earned may be more obvious to X-Men fans than to some of the mainstream reviewers, but it's clear that Brian Singer and others involved in making X-Men: Apocalypse understand the previous films, and their source material, intimately. It's all cashed out as well as you could possibly hope. There's much fan service here, in the sense that there's much to get us cheering for the impressive showings given to beloved characters - but it's never an unearned style of fan service.

Some of the reviews from mainstream film critics have grumbled about using a villain such as En Sabah Nur, or "Apocalypse", who is a straightforward existential threat with no redeeming moral features. And yet, even he is portrayed - by Oscar Isaac - with considerable subtlety and theatrical chutzpah. There's also just a lot of plain old-fashioned comic-book fun in having such a powerful, almost invincible, utterly irredeemable villain for the good guys to punch at - generally with little effect even though they don't hold back. It's not as if the movie is short of more sympathetic villainous characters, including Magneto (likewise played with authority by Michael Fassbender) and (with a bit less motivation for their actions) the newcomers to the franchise's current sort-of-prequel trilogy: Storm, Archangel, and Psylocke. But there's actually something refreshing about having the totally destructive and megalomaniacal Apocalypse as the main threat.

While I don't want to reveal events (or even the themes), I can say that the standard of the acting is very high. James McAvoy is superb as Professor X, with a broad emotional repertoire. Michael Fassbender portrays Magneto as an agonised malcontent warrior gifted with enormous power (for those who care about such things - and don't we all if we're X-Men fans? - Magneto's power feats in this movie exceed anything that we'd previously seen from him). Fans of Storm will be relieved to hear that her portrayal by Alexandra Shipp is incomparably better - more dramatic, more persuasive - than Halle Berry's wooden performances. This has promise for the future, as Storm has never really thrived as a character in the X-Men movies. Sophie Turner is more than creditable as a young Jean Grey, much as I find it hard to look at her without seeing Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine has a rampaging, totally fitting, cameo, while Evan Peters, as Quicksilver, steals the show in some spectacular scenes (one in particular).
I could go on, but the bottom line is that anyone who cares about these characters - or about any of them - will leave the movie happy about their portrayals.

That's something of a pleasant change, I should say, since a weakness of this franchise has been iconic characters who've not been well served by the scripts and by the actors portraying them. Storm is one obvious example; Emma Frost is another. In that regard, X-Men: Apocalypse has no obvious weaknesses unless you want to complain that the younger students at Xavier's school (Jubilee and others) don't get individual development.

If there is a real weakness in the movie from the viewpoint of X-Men fans, it's a certain amount of predictability to the plot, and of course some scenes have already been given away by the studio's promotion machinery (such as the killing of Magneto's wife and daughter, early in the movie, and Erik's subsequent renewed rage against humanity; but even this well-advertised part of the story is handled with originality, surprises, unexpected strength).

Some events may seem confusing or contrived to mainstream reviewers or, more generally, to filmgoers who are not immersed in X-Men lore. Overall, though, here's the score on X-Men: Apocalypse. This is a superb, emotionally satisfying ending to the film trilogy that began with X-Men: First Class. For my money X-Men: Apocalypse is the best X-Men movie to date and a candidate for best of all in the wave of contemporary superhero movies that began with the original X-Men movie 16 years ago. At this point, some professional reviewers don't seem to "get" it - but do not, under any circumstances, let that put you off!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Grace Randolph raves about X-Men: Apocalypse

I'm hanging out to see X-Men: Apocalypse in the next couple of days. The reviews seem to be very mixed so far - some people love the movie, while quite a few critics are knocking it. I'll soon find out for myself, but this infectious (and pretty much spoiler-free) review by Grace Randolph has me revved up. As you'll see if you click on the link, Randolph raves about X-Men Apocalypse, thinking it's the best X-Men movie yet and the best of the comic-book blockbusters so far this year - almost perfect, she thinks, for what it is. I like it when she says that there are many moments that fans will love, but that are all properly earned.

We'll see. I'm getting the impression that some critics are giving X-Men: Apocalypse unfair flak: that they wanted it to be a different sort of movie (maybe something more like Captain America: Civil War, which was certainly impressive in its way), and were not prepared to enjoy it on its own terms. But maybe I'll agree with them when I see it. Stay tuned...

Monday, May 16, 2016

Currently reading: Immortal Engines, ed.Slusser, Westfahl, and Rabkin

I've started reading Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin (Athens, GA, and London,1996). I'm interested to see what take the various contributors will have on how science fiction (in particular) typically regards immortality and radical extension.

My impression is that SF tends to be quite hostile to these ideas, though we can always be biased in obtaining such impressions (either by perceiving more widespread agreement with our own views than actually exists or by becoming hyper-alert to any disagreement with our views). The papers collected in Immortal Engines are from one of the highly respected Eaton conferences, so they can be expected to be of good quality - though themed conferences can, of course, lead to the publication of a lot of papers that are only tenuously on topic.

I'll plunge on, and I'll doubtless report more.

"Freedom of Thought: The Media and Propaganda" - at Academia.edu

"Freedom of Thought: The Media and Propaganda" was my first published piece with New Philosopher - appearing in issue #1 (almost three years ago now). I've now uploaded a copy on Academia.edu for anyone who might be interested and would not otherwise have access.

Like other New Philosopher articles, it is quite brief (in fact, most are even briefer than this) - at 1500 words. But it's long enough, I think, to make its point. It also gives a sample of the level of writing that you'll find in New Philosopher - a semi-popular magazine that you might be interested to read more generally.

Monday, May 09, 2016

10-year anniversary!

Slightly belatedly, let's celebrate the 10-year anniversary of this blog. My first posts, including this first substantive one, were actually made back on 26 March 2006. Time flies! The blog has had its ups and downs in its role and its popularity over time - and for a period it emigrated to the Skeptic Ink network - but overall this has been a good decade of blogging. It's never been a very high-traffic site (averaging a bit over 1000 views per day at its peak, and somewhat less these days... though I get a lot more than that when I post on the Cogito blog). But it's brought some very interesting people my way, and it's contributed greatly to what I've been able to achieve during the decade.

My Academia.edu page revisited

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've recently built myself a page at Academia.edu. This will bring together a fair bit of information about the academic side of my working life, including a detailed CV and a good selection of my work - with a bias toward older and and/or more obscure pieces.

Do feel free to check it out. Some highlights are:

1. "Science and the Sea of Faith" - previously published only in an obscure small-press publication in Australia.

2. "Should we fear death? Epicurean and modern arguments" - again, previously published only in a fairly obscure collection. I argue that there is a rational basis to fear death, though not as much as we actually do. Check it out for more detail.

3. "Mutants, Cyborgs, AI & Androids" - published in Meanjin in 2004. Meanjin is a well-known literary journal in Australia, but is not so well known elsewhere. Includes some wrestling with ideas about what it is to be human, whether human beings have a particular moral worth - compared to, say, artificial intelligences - and so on.

4. "Anthropomorphic Superbeings and Future Human Societies" - although I've delivered this paper orally, it hasn't previously been published.

5. "How free is the will? Sam Harris misses his mark" - this piece, which responds to Sam Harris's small book on free will (though it's much more than a book review), was originally published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. The version I've uploaded is slightly longer than the previously published version, with some text from my original manuscript restored. There are also some other small tweaks. This is my definitive version.

In all, I've uploaded 18 papers so far, but the above pieces especially make it worthwhile in that they are not readily available to most readers (unlike, for example, articles in the Journal of Medical Ethics). I obviously consider them all to be solid work (or I wouldn't be making them more readily available), even if my interests and emphases have changed a bit since some of them were written.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Shame of Public Shaming

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle, NSW

[Originally published on The Conversation.]

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms. However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty.

Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu, but its effect is being offset by the rise of social media and, with it, new kinds of shaming.

Indeed, as Welsh journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson portrays vividly in his latest book, social media shaming has become a social menace. Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015) is a timely contribution to the public understanding of an emotionally charged topic.

Shaming is on the rise. We’ve shifted – much of the time – to a mode of scrutinising each other for purity. Very often, we punish decent people for small transgressions or for no real transgressions at all. Online shaming, conducted via the blogosphere and our burgeoning array of social networking services, creates an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The making of a call-out culture

I noticed the trend – and began to talk about it – around five years ago. I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to “call out” and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong. Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).

Since then, the trend to an online call-out culture has continued and even intensified, but something changed during 2015. Mainstream journalists and public intellectuals finally began to express their unease.

There’s no sign that the new call-out culture is fading away, but it’s become a recognised phenomenon. It is now being discussed more openly, and it’s increasingly questioned. That’s partly because even its participants – people who assumed it would never happen to them – sometimes find themselves “called out” for revealing some impurity of thought. It’s become clear that no moral or political affiliation holds patents on the weaponry of shaming, and no one is immune to its effects.

As Ronson acknowledges, he has, himself, taken part in public shamings, though the most dramatic episode was a desperate act of self-defence when a small group of edgy academics hijacked his Twitter identity to make some theoretical point. Shame on them! I don’t know what else he could have done to make them back down.

That, however, was an extreme and peculiar case. It involved ongoing abuse of one individual by others who refused to “get” what they were doing to distress him, even when asked to stop. Fascinating though the example is, it is hardly a precedent for handling more common situations.
At one time, if we go along with Ronson, it felt liberating to speak back in solidarity against the voices of politicians, corporate moguls, religious leaders, radio shock jocks, newspaper columnists and others with real power or social influence.

But there can be a slippery slope… from talking back in legitimate ways against, say, a powerful journalist (criticising her views and arguments, and any abusive conduct), to pushing back in less legitimate ways (such as attempting to silence her viewpoint by trying to get her fired), to destroying relatively powerless individuals who have done nothing seriously wrong.

Slippery slope arguments have a deservedly bad reputation. But some slopes really are slippery, and some slippery slope arguments really are cogent. With public online shaming, we’ve found ourselves, lately, on an especially slippery slope. In more ways than one, we need to get a grip.

Shaming the shamers

Ronson joined in a campaign of social media shaming in October 2009: one that led to some major advertisers distancing themselves from the Daily Mail in the UK. This case illustrates some problems when we discuss social media shaming, so I’ll give it more analysis than Ronson does.

One problem is that, as frequently happens, it was a case of “shame the shamer”. The recipient of the shaming was especially unsympathetic because she was herself a public shamer of others.

The drama followed a distasteful – to say the least – column by Jan Moir, a British journalist with a deplorable modus operandi. Moir’s topic was the death of Stephen Gately, one of the singers from the popular Irish band Boyzone. Gately had been found dead while on holiday in Mallorca with his civil partner, Andrew Cowles. Although the coroner attributed the death to natural causes, Moir wrote that it was “not, by any yardstick, a natural one” and that “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.”

Ronson does not make the point explicit in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but what immediately strikes me is that Moir was engaging in some (not-so-)good old-fashioned mainstream media shaming. She used her large public platform to hold up identified individuals to be shamed over very private behaviour. Gately could not, of course, feel any shame from beyond the grave, but Moir’s column was grossly tasteless since he had not even been buried when it first appeared.

Moir stated, self-righteously: “It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of [Gately’s] strange and lonely death.” But why was it so important that the public be told such particulars as whether or not Cowles (at least) hooked up that tragic evening for sex with a student whom Moir names, and whether or not some, or all, of the three young men involved used cannabis or other recreational drugs that night?

To confirm Moir’s propensities as a public shamer, no one need go further than the same column. She follows her small-minded paragraphs about Gately with a few others that shame “socialite” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for no worse sin than wearing a revealing outfit to a high-society party.

You get the picture, I trust. I’m not asking that Moir, or anyone else, walk on eggshells lest her language accidentally offend somebody, or prove open to unexpectedly uncharitable interpretations. Quite the opposite: we should all be able to speak with some spontaneity, without constantly censoring how we formulate our thoughts. I’ll gladly extend that freedom to Moir.

But Moir is not merely unguarded in her language: she can be positively reckless, as with her suggestion that Palmer-Tomkinson’s wispy outfit might more appropriately be worn by “Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton.” No amount of charitable interpretation can prevent the impression that she is often deliberately, or at best uncaringly, hurtful. In those circumstances, I have no sympathy for her if she receives widespread and severe criticism for what she writes.

When it comes to something like Moir’s hatchet job on Gately and Cowles, and their relationship, I can understand the urge to retaliate – to shame and punish in return. It’s no wonder, then, that Ronson discusses the feeling of empowerment when numerous people, armed with their social media accounts, turned on badly behaved “giants” such as the Daily Mail and its contributors. As it seemed to Ronson in those days, not so long ago, “the silenced were getting a voice.”

But let’s be careful about this.

Some distinctions

A few aspects need to be teased out. Even when responding to the shamers, we ought to think about what’s appropriate.

For a start, I am – I’m well aware – being highly critical of Moir’s column and her approach to journalism. In that sense, I could be said to be “shaming” her. But we don’t have to be utterly silent when confronted by unpleasant behaviour from public figures.

My criticisms are, I submit, fair comment on material that was (deliberately and effectively) disseminated widely to the public. In writing for a large audience in the way she does – especially when she takes an aggressive and hurtful approach toward named individuals – Moir has to expect some push-back.

We can draw reasonable distinctions. I have no wish to go further than criticism of what Moir actually said and did. I don’t, for example, want to misrepresent her if I can avoid it, to make false accusations, or to punish her in any way that goes beyond criticism. I wouldn’t demand that she be no-platformed from a planned event or that advertisers withdraw their money from the Daily Mail until she is fired.

The word criticism is important. We need to think about when public criticism is fair and fitting, when it becomes disproportionate, and when it spirals down into something mean and brutal.
Furthermore, we can distinguish between 1) Moir’s behaviour toward individuals and 2) her views on issues of general importance, however wrong or ugly those views might be. In her 2009 comments on Gately’s death, the two are entangled, but it doesn’t follow that they merit just the same kind of response.

Moir’s column intrudes on individuals' privacy and holds them up for shaming, but it also expresses an opinion on legal recognition of same-sex couples in the form of civil unions. Although she is vague, Moir seems to think that individuals involved in legally recognised same-sex relationships are less likely to be monogamous (and perhaps more likely to use drugs) than people in heterosexual marriages. This means, she seems to imply, that there’s something wrong with, or inferior about, same-sex civil unions.

In fairness, Moir later issued an apology in which she explained her view: “I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.” This is, however, difficult to square with the words of her original column, where she appears to deny, point blank, that civil unions “are just the same as heterosexual marriages.”

Even if she is factually correct about statistical differences between heterosexual marriages and civil unions, this at least doesn’t seem to be relevant to public policy. After all, plenty of marriages between straight people are “open” (and may or may not involve the use of recreational drugs), but they are still legally valid marriages.

If someone does think certain statistical facts about civil unions are socially relevant, however, it’s always available to them to argue why. They should be allowed to do so without their speech being legally or socially suppressed. It’s likewise open to them to produce whatever reliable data might be available. Furthermore, we can’t expect critics of civil unions to present their full case on every occasion when they speak up to express a view. That would be an excessive condition for any of us to have to meet when we express ourselves on important topics.

More generally, we can criticise bad ideas and arguments – or even make fun of them if we think they’re that bad – but as a rule we shouldn’t try to stop their expression.

Perhaps some data exists to support Moir’s rather sneering claims about civil unions. But an anecdote about the private lives of a particular gay couple proves nothing one way or the other. Once again, many heterosexual marriages are not monogamous, but a sensational story involving a particular straight couple would prove nothing about how many.

In short, Moir is entitled to express her jaundiced views about civil unions or same-sex relationships more generally, and the worst she should face is strong criticism, or a degree of satire, aimed primarily at the views themselves. But shining a spotlight on Cowles and Gately was unfair, callous, nasty, gratuitous, and (to use one of her own pet words) sleazy. In addition to criticising her apparent views, we can object strongly when she publicly shames individuals.

Surfing down the slippery slope

Ronson discusses a wide range of cases, and an evident problem is that they can vary greatly, making it difficult to draw overall conclusions or to frame exact principles.

Some individuals who’ve been publicly shamed clearly enough “started it”, but even they can suffer from a cruel and disproportionate backlash. Some have been public figures who’ve genuinely done something wrong, as with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes to make his stories appear more impressive. It’s only to be expected that Lehrer’s irresponsibility and poor ethics would damage his career. But even in his case, the shaming process was over the top. Some of it was almost sadistic.

Other victims of public shaming are more innocent than Lehrer. Prominent among them is Justine Sacco, whom Ronson views with understandable sympathy. Sacco’s career and personal life were ruined after she made an ill-advised tweet on 20 January 2013. It said: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was then subjected to an extraordinarily viral Twitter attack that led quickly to her losing her job and becoming an international laughing stock.

It appears that her tweet went viral after a Gawker journalist retweeted it (in a hostile way) to his 15,000 followers at the time – after just one person among Sacco’s 170 followers had passed it on to him.

Ronson offers his own interpretation of the Sacco tweet:
It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?
In truth, it’s not obvious to me just how to interpret the tweet, and of course I can’t read Sacco’s mind. If it comes to that, I doubt that she pondered the wording carefully. Still, this small piece of sick humour was aimed only at her small circle of Twitter followers, and it probably did convey to them something along the lines of what Ronson suggests. In its original context, then, it did not merely ridicule the plight of black AIDS victims in Africa.

Much satire and humour is, as we know, unstable in its meaning – simultaneously saying something outrageous and testing our emotions as we find ourselves laughing at it. It can make us squirm with uncertainty. This applies (sometimes) to high literary satire, but also to much ordinary banter among friends. We laugh but we also squirm.

In any event, charitable interpretations – if not a single straightforward one – were plainly available for Sacco’s tweet. This was a markedly different situation from Jan Moir’s gossip-column attacks on hapless celebrities and socialites. And unlike Moir, Sacco lacked a large media platform, an existing public following, and an understanding employer.

Ronson also describes the case of Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose life was turned to wreckage because of a photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the photo she is mocking a “Silence and Respect” sign by miming a shout and making an obscene gesture. The photo was uploaded on Facebook, evidently with inadequate privacy safeguards, and eventually it went viral, with Stone being attacked by a cybermob coming from a political direction opposite to the mob that went after Sacco.While the Arlington photograph might seem childish, or many other things, posing for it and posting it on Facebook hardly add up to any serious wrongdoing. It is not behaviour that merited the outcome for Lindsey Stone: destruction of her reputation, loss of her job, and a life of ongoing humiliation and fear.

Referring to such cases, Ronson says:
The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah [Lehrer]: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn’t done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters.
Thanks to Ronson’s intervention, Stone sought help from an agency that rehabilitates online reputations. Of Stone’s problems in particular, he observes:
The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh [an operative for the rehabilitation agency] to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

This is not the culture we wanted

Ronson also quotes Michael Fertik, from the agency that helped Stone: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist,” Ronson concludes sadly, “but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

This is not the culture we wanted. It’s a public culture that seems broken, but what can we do about it?

For a start, it helps to recognise the problem, but it’s difficult, evidently, for most people to accept the obvious advice: Be forthright in debating topics of general importance, but always subject to some charity and restraint in how you treat particular people. Think through – and not with excuses – what that means in new situations. Be willing to criticise people on your own side if they are being cruel or unfair.It’s not our job to punish individuals, make examples of them, or suppress their views. Usually we can support our points without any of this; we can do so in ways that are kinder, more honest, more likely to make intellectual progress. The catch is, it requires patience and courage.

Our public culture needs more of this sort of patience, more of this sort of courage. Can we – will we – rise to the challenge?

The Conversation

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Myth of Human Dignity

[This was first published on the Betterhumans website and later republished by IEET.]

Despite what some bioethicists say, our DNA doesn’t hold our moral worth.

In 1997, when the creation of Dolly was announced in the pages of Nature, many of the early responses expressed outrage that the cloning of human beings in a similar way would “violate human dignity.” Similar claims are frequently made about embryonic stem cell research or, indeed, any kind of research that involves the destruction of human embryos. Claims about the violation of human dignity are the stock in trade of politicians, bioethicists, clergymen, newspaper columnists and many others who wish to argue that such-and-such technology must be stopped.

However, it is often not clear what this argument amounts to. If human dignity is “violated,” the means by which it happens often seem obscure. How, exactly, would my dignity be violated if I made a free, well-informed decision to clone myself? Worse, it is difficult even to find a cogent and agreed upon definition of what “human dignity” is.

If we cut through the verbiage, it eventually becomes clear that what is being relied upon is the idea that human beings, as such, are especially worthy of moral respect and consideration. In this context, “dignity” is best understood as “moral worth”; accordingly, the expression “human dignity” refers to a special moral worth that is supposed to attach to us simply because we are human.

But while you wouldn’t know it from many bioethical debates, “human dignity” is a flawed ethical concept—one that we should stop relying upon for making decisions.

The concept of respect

The related concepts of moral worth and moral respect may not be much easier to clarify than that of human dignity, but this cluster of ideas can be better understood if we start with the concept of respect.

Taken at its broadest, to respect something or someone, X, means perceiving X as a constraint on our ability to act self-interestedly, or just according to whim. In other words, if we respect X, we must take X into account before we act. The ways in which we do so need not be moral, at least not in any narrow sense, but there will be something about X that should give us pause.

This might involve no more than exercising prudence. For example, I can be said to respect something inanimate, such as a powerful storm, or even something abstract, such as the storm’s power. My respect for the storm and its power will lead me to think twice before I go driving in the high winds—let alone putting out to sea in mountainous waves.

If I am foolish enough to go out in the storm, my failing is not essentially a moral one, though there may be an element of that if I take others with me, putting them at risk. Even if the direct risk is only to myself, others may love me or depend on me, and I am thus putting their happiness and welfare on the line, as well as my own. Still, in this example, my reasons for respecting the storm are basically prudential rather than moral.

Some other dictionary meanings of “respect” are much narrower than this broad idea of taking something into account. For example, respect can involve attitudes of deference, admiration, esteem or even reverence, for particular individuals. Still, it is clear that we need not feel this kind of respect for every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. On the contrary, some people don’t seem to deserve any particular admiration—certainly not our reverence. Some actually strike us as quite contemptible.

And yet, we treat our fellow human beings—even the contemptible ones—as morally constraining our ability to act selfishly or thoughtlessly. We can’t, in other words, just do what we like to other people; we must give their separate interests at least some regard. In this sense, they are all worthy of our respect.

Why respect other people?

So far, so good. It seems that we are morally obliged to respect other people, even if we don’t esteem them all as individuals. This comes to the same thing as saying they have moral worth, or possess dignity. But if we are asked how it is that other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us—exactly why people merit moral respect—we don’t advance the argument if we reply that it is because they possess the property of human dignity.

Once we understand how all these concepts relate to each other, we can see that this is no more helpful than being asked why oil burns and replying that it is because oil possesses the property of flammability.

Our reason for responding to other humans as beings whom we cannot treat just as we want, without regard for their interests, is that they possess a rich set of intrinsic and social characteristics that we feel we cannot ignore. The intrinsic characteristics at issue include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience and simply the shared knowledge and burden of mortality (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

Babies and children don’t possess all of those characteristics, at least not to the same degree as adults, but they possess others that compel us to have regard to their interests. Indeed, they strike us as uniquely appropriate subjects of our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. As do adults, they also have their place in our societies, a very important one, since all societies see children as their hope for the future—no society would last for long if its members thought or felt otherwise.

Respecting nonhumans

If we think about nonhuman animals, we quickly realize that the species we have encountered to date possess only some of the characteristics that I’ve listed. However, animals do possess sentience, to varying degrees. Some appear capable of suffering in ways that go beyond physical pain. Some possess quite high levels of intelligence, and they are able to bond with us socially. All of these characteristics of animals may be enough (at least in particular cases) to make us feel we owe them considerable respect—moral respect, not the merely prudential kind that makes us avoid getting into unarmed combat with a rhinoceros or a tiger.

If we think about this seriously, some of us may feel compelled to vegetarianism. For the rest of us, it seems that an appropriate response to nonhuman animals is to at least kill them with the minimum of cruelty. At the very least, we should ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering. All of this discussion suggests that nonhuman animals possess some dignity, understood as moral worth.

What about inanimate things? These, too, may sometimes constrain our actions, if only because harming them might harm other human beings or other sentient animals. (I set aside the tricky question of whether inanimate things can ever have interests of their own.) Even some individual trees, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value. To destroy or harm them would be reprehensible. The same can apply to works of art, to certain landscapes or seascapes and even to some complex and valuable machines.

By this point, it seems that we must show some moral respect not only to other human beings, but also to many other beings and things.

What if we encountered another species as intelligent as ourselves? We can, of course, imagine circumstances in which it would be rational to treat any such beings as our enemies—for example, if they were warlike and showed a low regard for our moral worth. But could we just treat them however we wanted? Would we be entitled to torture them? What if, like us, they felt terrible psychological suffering when their young ones died? Could we just slaughter their young anyway?
Our ability to bond socially with these other creatures—or their ability to bond with us—might be very relevant to how we would treat them. Likewise for their possession of characteristics such as sentience, self-consciousness and the capacity for deep emotional experiences. By comparison, the fact that they would not have human DNA seems of little relevance.

At this point, we can conclude that being human is not a necessary condition for having moral worth.

At least in principle, it is not even a necessary condition for having moral worth to the same degree as human adults and children.

Nor, I argue, is it a sufficient condition.

The moral worth of embryos

A human zygote or embryo is biologically of the species Homo sapiens, as I am, and as I can assume all my readers are. Does that give a zygote, or an early embryo, the same moral worth as an adult human being or a human child?

No. An early embryo is a tiny blob of cells that bears no resemblance to an adult or infant human being, except insofar as its DNA contains certain species-specific sequences of base pairs of nucleotides. An early embryo lacks such characteristics as sentience, awareness or rationality, or any of the other psychological or social characteristics that give adult or infant human beings their moral worth.

Nor is it a good argument to suggest that an embryo has the potential to develop these characteristics if it grows into a fully formed human being. The short answer is that the potential to develop morally significant characteristics is just not the same as actually having those characteristics right now. (But there is more to be said here; I have discussed this in comprehensive detail in my article “The Supposed Rights of the Fetus.”)

This leaves open the possibility that some abortions—for frivolous reasons or at an unnecessarily late stage—might turn out to be morally wrong. As for infanticide, I cannot put the point more plainly than Francis Fukuyama (in his Our Posthuman Future), who states that, “It is the violation of the natural and very powerful bonding that takes place between parent and infant.that makes infanticide such a heinous crime in most societies.” However, invoking the supposed human dignity of a zygote or an early embryo borders on irrationality or superstition.

DNA isn’t a deciding factor

It is plain that the moral worth of human beings, other animals and inanimate things is not dependent on the presence or absence of human DNA. The presence of human DNA is neither necessary nor sufficient to bestow moral worth. Instead, there are many other characteristics that strike us when we consider how we may (ethically speaking) treat someone or something.

There is, of course, something attractive and true in the idea that we humans all have great moral worth, despite our individual differences. This idea can be invoked to argue, for example, that people of all racial or ancestral backgrounds should be treated equally under the law and, moreover, with kindness and consideration. After the horrors committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and similar horrors that have continued since in many parts of the world, it is surely worth making the point—as strongly as possible—that we are all very similar under the skin.

If the phrase “human dignity” helps us keep this in mind, perhaps it can be retained as shorthand to refer to the moral worth of all adult or infant human beings, irrespective of race or ancestry.

However, our moral worth does not reside in the fact of our Homo sapiens DNA. For this reason, it makes no sense to argue about bioethical issues, such as cloning and stem cell research, on the basis that there is a specific human dignity. The concept of human dignity is a blunt tool for any careful analysis of those issues. It is a tool that we should discard.