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).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Philosophy versus science versus politics [republishing]

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

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

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

Williamson on philosophy and science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aspiration for philosophy

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

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

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

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

Politics, intellectual honesty, and discussion in the public square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High standards

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

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

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

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

[My Amazon author page]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

A modest defence of bioethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Pinker and I can agree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to be a sceptical bioethicist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locking horns forever?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Same-Sex Marriage: A Case for “Yes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who Will Flourish in a Brave New World?

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

Friday, September 08, 2017

Kindle edition of Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination now available

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

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination coming soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review of Callum Brown's book BECOMING ATHEIST

I have reviewed Callum G. Brown's Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West in Reviews in History. Brown also has a useful and generous response. If nothing else, my review should give a good overview of the argument offered by Brown and the sort of evidence that supports it. The gist of the argument is that religiosity collapsed in many countries in the 1960s, largely because women increasingly became alienated from it (men may already have been alienated from it to some extent). See for yourself how this is supposed to work (Brown gives his imprimatur to the way I express it, which I was not sure he'd do).

Here is a long extract from a much longer review - for the full thesis, read the whole thing and see Brown's response:
Many men who lost their faith during the long 1960s spoke, in retrospect, of their development of naturalistic worldviews through encounters with science and philosophy, whereas only a few women spoke like this. Instead, women often reported distressful events in their lives from gender-based subordination, abuse, or loss of loved ones. Unlike the men in Brown’s sample, the women described their disengagement from family expectations and their rejection of 1950s’ ideas of respectability and piety. Conversely, these women did not speak in the same way as men of psychological trauma from the actual experience of shedding religious belief. At a critical transition point in Western history, it seems, men and women tended to become alienated from religion by different paths.
For Brown, certainly, the key change was the alienation of many women in the 1960s. He refers to ‘the declining acceptance by young women of the traditional Christian ideal of marriage, motherhood and domesticity’ (p. 6). Many women ceased to accept – and ceased to reflect in their own thoughts and speech – Christian moral discourse relating to pious femininity and to moral virtue more generally. Not surprisingly, then, Brown finds strong interconnections between what he calls ‘the rise of no religionism’ (p. 89) and the dramatic changes for women and families associated with the 1960s’ demographic transition. These changes included later marriages, increased sexual activity outside of marriage, a steep decline in fertility levels, and far greater participation by women in higher education and the paid labour market.
At this critical point in history, many women became unwilling to submit to the regime of sexual control imposed by the churches and often enforced through the family. In rejecting this, they inevitably denied the authority of religious culture and discourse. In interviews, feminist respondents often reported a general alienation from religion and conventional morality at an early stage in their lives. This often preceded (and perhaps motivated) their feminism, but their feminism, in turn, preceded their self-recognition as humanists or atheists.
While Brown’s interviews were with self-conscious non-believers, it seems likely that there was widespread alienation of women from religion during the 1960s, extending to some who retained a residual faith. Becoming Atheist tends to confirm a dissatisfaction among the young women of the time with conventional morals and gender roles. When added to more traditional – largely male – suspicion of religiosity, this could be an effective recipe for snowballing irreligiosity. Bear in mind that some male compliance with religious and moral norms may have been in deference to the real or imagined sensibilities of women. An unprecedented defection of women from religiosity could thus have had a very large impact.
In his response, Brown does not disagree with anything that I have quoted above. He identifies some possible minor differences between us on other issues, although I'm not sure that we really do differ. If we really do differ about any empirical claims, I'm open to the possibility that he is right on them, but I don't think it's at all clear that we do, even if we use slightly different language. At any rate, the references that he offers to support his points - whether or not they are really points that I disagree with - appear useful. I think this is the kind of constructive exchange from which onlookers, and even the participants, can learn.

I should say, that some of Brown's conclusions about, for example, the different paths by which (many) men and (many) women became alienated from religion in the middle to late decades of last century are unexpected. I.e., I don't think a layperson to these arguments would have expected them. Even I, as someone who has looked into this a bit, find them pleasingly unobvious and revealing. That does not mean I am especially sceptical about them, though. I think Brown's book (along with his earlier work on this topic) makes the empirical case pretty well.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Steve Bannon sees the world

This is mainly a bookmark - but here's a link to Steve Bannon's remarks to a conference in Vatican City back in 2014. Everything we have seen so far, since Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president, suggests that remarks like these distil the ideology behind the current administration. You'll forgive me for suggesting that the ideology concerned borders on a kind of Christofascism. Note how Bannon sees the most horrific events of last century as a war against atheism (of all things), for which capitalism generated the wealth to beat back various kinds of barbarians.

Edit: This critique by Cathy Young of Trump's speech in Warsaw is very good, and it's salient to this post.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A brief word on Trump's (worrying) Warsaw speech

I'm thinking of writing something longer about Donald Trump's major speech delivered in Warsaw a few days ago - perhaps for Free Inquiry. This post is partly a bookmark and partly a reminder to myself to come back to the issue. I don't often comment on narrowly political events, but a speech like this, which was clearly intended by those involved to be something of a landmark, is worth attention. It paints a broad picture of what the current administration in the US is supposed to stand for.

Much of the speech simply extols the history, traditions, and culture of Poland and its people. It was tailored to win applause from its immediate audience while projecting Trump as a global statesman. Beyond this, however, it paints a picture of the United States and other countries (pre-eminently, it seems, Poland) standing in defence of Western values (whatever, exactly, these are supposed to be) against barbarians at the gates. The speech was obviously crafted with great care, and its message should be taken seriously, though I fear that if we do take it seriously it is either incoherent or a somewhat coded message in praise of Christian values rather than Enlightenment values.

To be fair, the speech does mention values such as free inquiry and debate, but again and again it ringingly invokes God. The problem with its coherence is that on one conception of Western values - a conception that I favour - they most notably involve the taming of religion (and its separation from the levers of secular power) rather than religion's glorification. This is evidently not the conception of Western values that Trump and his speech writer(s) had in mind, and the choice of Poland - one of the most religious and even theocratic nations in Europe - to deliver a major speech immediately frames, and partly governs, the speech's meaning. Much of it is sufficiently ambiguous or bland to be interpreted in more than one way, and it could be relatively innocuous on some readings. It does, however, fit all too easily into a worldview that understands politics as a struggle to revive and sustain historical Christendom, rather than to extend the secular ideas of the Enlightenment. Theocrats should be pleased. We already know that such a worldview is well-represented within Trump's team, whether or not Trump sincerely shares it.

More later ... but perhaps elsewhere.

Friday, July 07, 2017

CV Update

My CV updated at Academia.edu for anyone who might happen to be interested.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Announcement: I have won the 2017 AAP Media Prize

I can announce that I have won the 2017 AAP Media Prize, which was presented by the Australasian Association of Philosophy at the Alan Saunders Lecture, held on the evening of 4 July 2017. On this occasion, the Alan Saunders Lecture was delivered by Professor Nancy Sherman. This annual lecture takes place in conjunction with the AAP's annual conference, which is being hosted this year by the University of Adelaide.

My citation from the judges for the AAP Media Prize states:
Russell Blackford has created an impressive body of work that deftly weaves together his academic research and popular writing across a wide range of topics and outlets. On subjects as diverse as philosophy of religion and science, ethics, and political philosophy, Blackford’s clarity and earnestness demonstrates the indispensability of philosophy for public debates. The panel particularly commends the way in which Blackford’s writing not only communicates philosophical ideas, but also models philosophical practice, taking the reader along through a process of lucid and balanced argument to reach his conclusion. His work has, deservedly, found a wide and eager audience.
This particular prize means a great deal to me, as I have long been an advocate for public philosophy. I encourage colleagues to present philosophical ideas to the public in an accessible way. I also see a role for philosophers in addressing issues of current public concern with the clarity and intellectual rigour - and perhaps a certain fearlessness - that our discipline shows at its best.

My thanks to my editors, notably Tim Dean, founder of the Cogito philosophy blog hosted by The Conversation, and Zan Boag, the editor of New Philosopher, both of whom have done much in the cause of philosophical outreach.

As it turned out, Zan was a co-winner of the other award announced on the night, the AAP Media Professional Award, along with Kyla Slaven from the ABC podcast series Short and Curly. Tim Dean has won that award on a past occasion (2015).

While I'm at it, I should also thank Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry, where I have a regular column. The AAP Media Prize is specifically for publications in Australian popular media. Nonetheless, Tom deserves mention for his ongoing support for my work and for his efforts in bringing the ideas of philosophers (among others) to a large and dedicated international audience. We need and should honour editors who do this.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Cardinal Pell charged with serious sex offences

According to media reports (such as this one), Cardinal George Pell has been charged today with serious sexual crimes dating back to his time as a relatively young priest in Ballarat during the 1970s.

I don't know Pell at all and have never had any contact with him. I doubt that I am even remotely on his radar. I don't count him as in any sense a personal enemy, but his deeply reactionary moral views make him the opposite of everything I stand for. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am, for example, an unremitting supporter of gay rights and a trenchant opponent of laws that criminalize abortion. That is quite the opposite position to Pell's.

Furthermore, I have sometimes been a ferocious critic of Pell himself and of the Catholic Church. Indeed, as far as I know I was the first person to popularize the term "cult of misery" as a harsh term for the Church (see the final sentences of the link just provided, and search for the words on this blog). This was in reference to what I view as Roman Catholicism's joylessness, deeply anti-sex attitudes, and weird fetish about suffering. For a time, that term gained considerable currency in some circles.

(To be sure, few phrases are ever truly original. I don't know where I got "cult of misery" from or whether it ... well ... just came to me. Someone probably did use it in that way before me, but if so I don't know who. The point is not that I was especially inventive but that I at least helped to promote this term during the height of New Atheist activism around a decade ago.)

These days, I might use slightly more temperate language and have slightly different priorities - but I have not really changed my views about the Church or its moral values.

I have also been a scathing critic of the Church's atrocious mismanagement of sexual abuse cases involving children, and it seems clear enough that Pell was implicated in some of this.

What is not clear is whether he ever engaged directly in sexual abuse of children. While it might help my agenda in some ways if this were so, I don't know about that one way or the other. I don't claim that anything he has done that I have criticized in the past is evidence for that kind of extreme abusive conduct.

To be honest, I was (very slightly) surprised that the Victorian police took the step of charging Pell with these historical crimes dating from the 1970s. That suggests to me that the police might have evidence that is stronger than anything made known to the public so far. At the same time, I am not willing to draw inferences of guilt in respect of such serious crimes from what is currently on the public record. At the least, I'd want to see the evidence presented in open court where it could be tested fully for its cogency.

Many people do draw inferences of guilt before legal verdicts are reached - and sometimes even after acquittals. Part of the virtue of the criminal court system is, indeed, to permit public scrutiny of the courts and their operation. I see this as primarily to protect accused persons from being tried in kangaroo courts - subjected to unfair processes - but we might also scrutinize trials if they seem to function too leniently toward highly privileged individuals. At the end of the day, we might have reservations about any outcome, whether it is a conviction or an acquittal.

That acknowledged, I think we should normally be very slow to rush to judgment, especially when a trial is pending and neither side has produced its evidence or tested the evidence relied on by the opposing side. Sometimes what seems like a compelling case for the prosecution collapses when witnesses are cross-examined, other evidence is scrutinized, and evidence tending to suggest innocence is provided to the court. As events unfold, we should also, I think, be deferential to the courts (including, where relevant, the appeal courts) with matters involving grave criminal accusations. That is, we should not lightly conclude that the courts made factual errors on the admissible evidence before them.

All too often, we form views based on experiences of our own that seem analogous (and which we may be distorting in our memories in any event), on our positive or negative feelings about accused people, and on the basis of other evidence that tends to prejudice our judgment without being logically probative. All of this is worth consciously resisting: after all, any of us could find ourselves accused of grave crimes at some point, and we'd hope that the evidence against us would be subjected to rigorous scrutiny before the public assumed our guilt.

Given my very severe, and sometimes even mocking, criticism of Pell in the past, I thought it worthwhile to make a statement on where I stand with this. I haven't softened in my substantive criticism of Pell, or the Catholic Church; ultimately, however, that is not the point. From a legal perspective, Pell is entitled to the presumption of innocence. From a broader social perspective, we should not rush to judgment. Let's at least wait until the legal proceedings are over. If, at that stage, we have serious reservations about the outcome, given the evidence presented, the courts are not beyond criticism. But for now, the best thing to wish for is a fair, thorough, and reasonably expeditious trial.

There is some vagueness about the exact offences charged, but they do sound very serious. They must now be examined through the solemn and rigorous processes of the criminal courts.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination now available for pre-order on Amazon

My new book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics is now available for pre-order on Amazon - and currently at a very affordable price of US$11.45. The projected publication date is 7 September 2017.

The book comes with a kind endorsement from Gregory Benford:

"This is a seasoned, balanced analysis of a major issue in our thinking about the future, seen through the lens of science fiction, a central art of our time. Everyone from humanists to technologists should study these ideas and examples. Blackford's book is wise and savvy, and a delight to read as well."

If you're interested in buying a copy, it might be worthwhile pre-ordering now from Amazon or the other online supplier of your choice. From your viewpoint, you might be able to obtain a copy below its list price. From my point of view (and this applies to any author) it always helps to get a boost in Amazon rankings at an early stage to add to visibility.

Unlike some books, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination is not intended primarily as a pedagogical work to teach philosophy to undergraduates through science fiction stories, although it could have some value along those lines if used wisely. I do offer an accessible and (I believe) accurate overview of the discipline of philosophy and the specific field of moral philosophy. However, this book is intended as a philosophical investigation of science fiction and some of its major themes. It is written by someone with doctorates in both philosophy and English literature - as well as some professional SF and fantasy publications. I hope that that background shows in the theoretical discussion and my analyses of various novels, stories, and movies. Of course, you'll need to see for yourself.

Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet

Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.

Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. With variations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.

This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.

Serious wrongdoing

In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.

To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.

In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character - what she was psychologically capable of - and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.

If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character - as it was expressed in the past - and claiming to have changed.

Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.

But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.

Everyday cases

In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might - quite properly - not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.

Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped - fairly suddenly, no doubt - to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.

The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?
It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.

Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.

Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.

Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way - immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent - these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent - or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social - course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.

Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.

And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”

Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.

Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human - not infallible or omniscient beings - we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.

If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.
For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.


I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.

For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across - and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.

It might nonetheless be reasonable - and it is somewhat conventional - to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry - I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”

The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.

Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.

A flexible practice

The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.

On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.

If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.

Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.

It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.

But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.

In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.

Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.
However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.

In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”

On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.

This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.

Weaponised demands and complaints

As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

Your best guide?

My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.

Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.

None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings - especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.

The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.

Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.

In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.

Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.

This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.
For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.

Republished from The Conversation (published June 25, 2017, by Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle, NSW).

Monday, June 26, 2017

New post on The Conversation: "Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet"

I have a new post on the Cogito blog, hosted by The Conversation, entitled "Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet". I'll repost the entire thing here at some point when I have time (it always takes a lot of fiddling getting pieces from The Conversation to appear here in the proper format).

Meanwhile, if you're reading this click on the link (above) and check it out! I challenge a lot of the popular advice that you'll read about apologies. Amongst it, I defend the use of the much-maligned "notpology". It's your best guide on the Internet because it emphasizes the complexities that other material on the Internet usually tries to deny.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Update on Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination

At this stage, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics is scheduled for publication on 7 September 2017. There is a fair bit to do between now and then - nursing a manuscript through the editing and production process can be pretty intense - but the indication is that the book will be appearing sooner rather than later. We have already settled on the cover art and the back-cover copy (which includes a gracious endorsement by Gregory Benford). I'll provide the cover when I have it in an easily usable form, and I'll post more updates as the schedule rolls around.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Quartz magazine article on killing bad ideas

The bad news about bad ideas is that there is no straightforward way to kill them off. The reason for that, in a nutshell, is that they often promulgate through psychological mechanisms that are largely independent of the evidence for or against them.

A couple of months ago, I discussed this with journalist Olivia Goldhill, who subsequently wrote an article on the subject for Quartz. The author also spoke to Brian Earp, and she quotes both of us in some detail.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Blast from the past - on apologies

This post is really just to bookmark a post that I wrote back in 2013, when a version of this blog was hosted by the Skeptic Inc. network.

Long extract:
[...] I often find myself apologising for things that I don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. One extension of the central idea of apologising is into areas where we have somehow contributed to confusion or hurt by getting something wrong. This may not always be our fault – sometimes we might misinterpret something, not as a result of paying insufficient attention, or being biased in how we approach it, or anything else that is even mildly culpable. The reason might be ambiguity in what was said by the other person, or other poor expression by that person. Still, harmonious social interaction is assisted if we waive these possible defences in a lot of cases and give at least a light apology: “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.” Or whatever. And of course with this kind of case there are all sorts of grey areas about who might not have expressed themselves perfectly and who might not have paid all reasonably possible care in interpreting their words. Light apologies from one side or both are familiar in these
circumstances, and they are beneficial. They help us all get along, despite our various distractions and limitations.
The problem that sometimes arises is when one side insists on these sorts of apologies, or even on more grave and self-humbling apologies. It really is very much a matter of discretion when and how you give this kind of apology where you don’t really feel (at least seriously) culpable. It’s also, to some extent, a reciprocal thing. E.g. if someone gives such an apology to me, I’m likely to acknowledge, in reply, that I could have expressed myself better (we can almost always express ourselves better, after all). All this is really more a matter of etiquette and getting along than anything else, and when it’s ramped up to a higher level, with one person insisting on their moral superiority to the other, the whole point is missed. Furthermore, the discourse can become destructive rather than healing – something none of us should want.
By the way, you can go here for a full archive of my contributions at Skeptic Inc.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination

My book Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics has been accepted for publication by Springer, and I expect it to appear late in 2017 or possibly early 2018. As the title suggests, the book studies the intersection of the science genre and moral philosophy, with an emphasis on the Intelligent Others (aliens, robots, mutants, etc.) depicted in SF, and on new conceptions of ethics associated with the genre (in particular, an ethic of human destiny; and of course there will be some discussion of transhumanist and posthumanist conceptions of ethics).

I can also announce that the back cover will feature a very kind endorsement from Gregory Benford.

One of my main tasks for the remainder of 2017 will be nursing Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination through the editorial and production stages. I'll have further announcements as the year goes on. Watch out for the book itself around the end of the year.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Philosophy's Future now published

My new book, Philosophy's Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress - co-edited with Damien Broderick - has now been published by Wiley-Blackwell.

(Note: Australian readers may find a glitch with Wiley's page for the book. If not much material, such as a description, appears when you click on the link, change your country setting at the top of the page.)

The book includes introductory essays by myself and Damien (Damien's is actually in the form of a philosophical dialogue).

Those aside, the contributors are, in order: Myisha Cherry; James Ladyman; Noretta Koertge; Frank Jackson; Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay; Massimo Pigliucci; Jessica Wilson; Daniel Stoljar; Stuart Brock; Richard Kamber; Mark Walker; Timothy Williamson; Christopher Norris; Stefan Lorenz Sorgner; Karen Green; Benj Hellie; and Ward E. Jones.

The central issue of the book is whether the philosophy has a viable future as an academic discipline, given the common perception that it fails to make progress in the same way as the sciences. It often seems as if philosophers are involved in increasingly esoteric, fragmented, highly specialised debates that get nowhere in trying to resolve the discipline's central problems. If that is truly the case, we might wonder what use it is. Why bother studying philosophy or keeping it as part of the university curriculum?

Needless to say, the debate does not end there. Much can be said in response, though there is still a nagging doubt as to whether philosophy might disappoint our hopes and expectations for it. Please consider checking out what our authors have to say!

At the moment there is no cheap option for buying the book (we are hoping for an eventual paperback edition). However, your college or university library should have a nice, durable hardback copy - it includes the views of some of the world's leading philosophers on a topic of fundamental importance to the discipline. So if you're an academic or a student, please consider checking whether your library is ordering a copy and asking them to do so if they weren't planning to.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Philosophy's Future has been sent to printing

My new book, co-edited with Damien Broderick, is Philosophy's Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress. This has now been sent to printing by Wiley-Blackwell, and copies should be available at the end of April.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Viet Kong - a brief review of Kong: Skull Island

Don't read on if you want to see Kong: Skull Island totally unspoiled. That said, I won't hand out any major spoilers. In fact, I'm not sure the movie has any. Once the action gets going, it's all very predictable - which is one of the problems with this movie. Here's a gap in the text if you want to exit now.

I called this post "Viet Kong" for more than the reason that it is set in 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War and that the characters include soldiers from that era. This might have been interesting (I suppose), but it goes further. The expedition to Skull Island is a sort of coda to the Vietnam War, and the events become a miniature re-run of the war. Efforts to kill the giant ape King Kong seem all-too-analogous to America's failed attempt to overcome popular resistance in Vietnam and the activity of Viet Cong guerrillas. Kong himself becomes almost an analogue for the Viet Cong, and let's not even begin with any puns about guerrilla tactics and gorilla tactics. While the latter pun is merely an example of how my mind works, the parallel between whatever America thought it was doing in Vietnam and whatever the expeditionary team thinks it is doing on Skull Island is not my imagination. It's all-too-obvious and heavy-handed.

I was disappointed in this movie. I really wanted to like it, partly because I have some personal connection with the King Kong mythos (my 2005 tie-in novel, Kong Reborn) and partly because I thought Legendary Entertainment did a good job with Godzilla a couple of years ago. I've been looking forward to Kong: Skull Island ever since it was announced, and it did keep me entertained in a basic way, but it never enthralled me. I never found myself caring about any of the characters, and I found my cynicism triggered too much by all its obvious efforts at melodrama and emotional manipulation. At times, the film seemed to be attempting a remake of Apocalypse Now, with appropriate nods to that movie and, inevitably, to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (among other touches, the main character is called "James Conrad" and another character is called "Marlow"!). But we really didn't need a twisted remake of Apocalypse Now with gigantic, noble mammals standing in for the Vietnamese.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Review of Logan

This is a very short film review of the new movie in the X-Men franchise, Logan, starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen.

No specific plot spoilers follow, but read no further if you want to go into the cinema completely unbiased and clueless about what might happen.

The main thing that I can tell you, if you're wondering what this movie is like, is that the look, feel, and tone are very close to those of a Terminator movie back in the day when Terminator movies were good. It also has a bit of a Mad Max vibe, but I think a comparison with the feel of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (a movie for which I have a special soft spot) would make most sense. The experience is more like that than like a standard superhero movie, though if anything Logan is actually a bit darker than T2. The villain, Donald Pearce (played by Boyd Holbrook), even reminded me a little of the T-1000. He's nothing like as personally capable as T2's liquid-metal Terminator, but he's creepy, psychopathic, seems to have infinite resources behind him, and just keeps coming.

If this appeals as an approach to a superhero movie, do see Logan. It's powerful in every way: it kept me on edge, and it made me tear up at times. The performances of the main actors are every bit as solid as you'd expect from actors such as Hugh Jackman (as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine) and Patrick Stewart (as a very old Charles Xavier, since the movie is set in 2029). However, Dafne Keen steals the show as Laura/X-23.

Warning, though, Logan is dominated by almost unrelenting high-level violence. Even when it does sometimes relent, you always know that more is on its way soon. The result is a suspenseful, involving, frightening futuristic thriller.