Author Archives: Russell Blackford

The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.


In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.


The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.


As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.


If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.


The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.


Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.


An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.


In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

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A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

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The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech – again – and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill – not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that – if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence – I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.


One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should – at least in my view of the world – be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.


It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill makes the case – quite correctly – that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O’Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights – and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The monsters of Jurassic World

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss – and perhaps clarify – them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits – I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other – we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world.

Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun – scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie – alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters’ attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly – they are pretty much treated as dino fodder – but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil – the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator – a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more – perhaps triply? – unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.


Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive – and perhaps as simply inevitable – whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons – valuable or otherwise – play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and

  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Life during the culture wars

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Our political Manichaeism

Throughout his recent book Moral Tribes (2013), American psychologist and experimental philosopher Joshua Greene portrays a cultural and political tribalism that divides modern liberal democracies into groups of angry, warring enemies.

Likewise, high-profile social psychologist Jonathan Haidt emphasizes what he sees as a “political Manichaeism” in current cultural and political debate. Manichaeism was an ancient religion, dating from the 3rd century, whose key teaching was a supernatural dualism of absolute good and evil confronting each other in an ongoing cosmic struggle. Too often, it appears, disputants over cultural and political issues take a similar attitude; they see themselves as involved in a struggle for political power against utterly evil opponents. This creates an environment inhospitable to compromise, reason, good will, and ordinary civility.

In such an environment, tribalists demand ever more costly displays of ideological purity from their allies: this can involve insisting on more and more extreme views, as well as self-censoring any doubts or heretical impulses. At the same time, the culture warriors of rival tribes view opponents as morally corrupt, and as fair game for social destruction.

In the extreme, moral tribalists engage in threatened or actual violence, directed at others whom they regard as evildoers or complicit in evil. Among the worst examples are the murders committed by radical Islamists, such as those who attacked the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and the actions of extreme right-wing terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. Breivik was judged by the Norwegian justice system to be legally sane, but he subscribed to a bizarre and apocalyptic conspiracy theory involving attempts by elite “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

When nastiness becomes normal

Radical Islamists and extreme conspiracy theorists such as Breivik cling to ideological systems that are far outside the mainstream in Western liberal democracies. However, more mainstream participants in cultural and political debate, some of whom would never resort to outright acts of violence, can also be culpable in creating an environment in which nuance, charity, and compromise disappear.

When this becomes commonplace, we can find ourselves treating it as normal and acceptable. We may find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who merely disagree with us on issues and may have done little or nothing wrong. We may seek to advance our favoured causes by taking names and claiming scalps, rather than exploring and debating ideas. As a result, largely (or entirely) innocent people can have their good names trashed, their lives made miserable, and their careers damaged or ruined.

In some cases, mainstream politicians cannot resist getting in on the act. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to accept that politics is a dirty game and that it is (sort of) okay for professional politicians to try to destroy each other’s credibility and careers. That may be an ugly sight, but it’s so much worse when powerful politicians turn on far less powerful individuals, treating them as enemies to be destroyed.

The firing of Scott McIntyre

Consider the the harsh treatment of Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service, in Australia.

What was McIntyre’s crime? He did no more than publish a series of trenchant tweets criticising the mythos of Anzac Day.

Taken as a sequence, the offending tweets stated as follows: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered. The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society. Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Many of us might disagree with McIntyre’s sentiments, or at least feel uncomfortable with their emphasis; we might raise our eyebrows at their expression on a solemn national day for remembering those who died or suffered in war; and we might deplore McIntyre’s tone, including his apparent contempt for many of his fellow citizens (“poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers”). McIntyre may be open to some kind of moral criticism for the tweets, their wording, and their timing. Nonetheless, his views lie well within the usual boundaries for tolerance and consideration in a liberal democratic society.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume there are some opinions that are beyond the pale of tolerance. Views involving the advocacy of genocide are obvious candidates. Staff who are closely identified with their employer – such as its senior managers or individuals who provide its public face in one way or another – inevitably bring the employer into disrepute if they publicly express truly hateful, Nazi-like viewpoints. But nothing in McIntyre’s tweets was remotely like that: despite the aggressive language he chose, he expressed opposition to violence, not advocacy of it, and he sketched a rather tame and familiar left-wing critique of war and what he evidently understood as its glorification.

Yet, the SBS moved swiftly (with “decisive action”, as its senior managers expressed it) to fire him with immediate effect. This followed an outcry on Twitter that included denunciation of McIntyre by a government minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Here, then, we see a crucial issue. Should such powerful individuals as the ministers of national governments be using their very large public platforms to attack individual citizens who are not professional politicians or others with great power?

All sides of politics

I hasten to add that the problem does not lie on just one side of politics, though government attacks on public broadcasters provide some salient examples in Australia.

Notwithstanding such examples, the problem can be found on all sides of contemporary cultural and political controversy. Left-wing political activists are not always clean. Indeed, they often seek to advance their causes by opportunistic attacks on individuals who are portrayed as somehow deserving it. Hyperbolic and uncharitable attacks on specific, identifiable people provide a well-established tactic on the Left, one that was explicitly advocated by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky in his influential “how to” book, Rules for Radicals.

As I described in a post at Talking Philosophy, and republished recently on my personal blog, political activists may rally supporters by pretending that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Alinsky candidly acknowledged, the opponent – the person considered to be in the wrong in a particular situation – may actually, on a more objective assessment, have some admirable qualities and be 40 per cent right. As a result, activists often isolate and demonise essentially decent, reasonable people, pretend that situations are far more dire than they really are, and otherwise engage in deliberate misrepresentations. Those who are rallied – rather than doing the rallying – may thus come to misperceive named individuals not only as their opponents but as morally vicious people who are fair game for ill-treatment.

There may be no substitute for such tactics in genuinely dire situations where many people are suffering terribly, and where activists desperately need swift, dramatic victories to ameliorate the suffering. Thus, we may not regret that dishonest and hurtful tactics have been used in the past to achieve victories against slum lords, exploitative corporations, and oppressive regimes. However, distasteful it may be to say so, perhaps the ends can justify the means in truly urgent circumstances.

But even if we accept that much, what kind of society will we be living in if this approach becomes normalised? Do we want a cultural and political environment where intellectual dishonesty, social destruction of individuals, and pressures to engage in tribal displays (shows of ideological purity and of a willingness to adopt extreme views) become the daily currency of social interaction?

Our predicament

Much of our current political and cultural disputation takes the form of culture warring, waged across many fronts, rather than good-faith attempts at mutual understanding and shared deliberation. This is not, of course, entirely new. Social media such as Twitter and the blogosphere make it more visible, but we might wonder whether it is actually any worse than, say, twenty years ago.

Such trends are difficult to measure. Haidt, for one, is convinced that there has been a decline in civility and mutual good will in American politics – and if he’s correct, his observations probably apply beyond the US. On the other hand, we might recall the extremes of other decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s (the volatile era when I came of age).

However new it may be, the Manichaeism that Haidt identifies appears to be real. If that’s not obvious, try it out as a working hypothesis. You’ll likely see ongoing outrage, abuse, and demonisation of opponents from all sides of political and cultural debate. Note that the warring sides will not always be Right versus Left in the traditional sense. That has changed in the new culture wars of the twenty-first century: unusual alliances are forming, often cutting across old divisions or exposing deep disagreements within what we think of as the Right or the Left.

Cultural warfare is dividing good people from each other, creating a general environment of hostility where many of us are constantly on hair-triggers (and where many people feel they must self-censor or else be turned on by their own tribes). All of this hurts good people, lowers the quality of debate, distorts our understanding of the problems we confront, and harms the process of democratic deliberation.

What’s less clear is what we can do about it. I’ll return to that in later posts.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Amnesty International and the prostitution debate

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Over the past month, there has been much debate about an ongoing process within Amnesty International to establish a new policy on prostitution.

Amnesty’s processes

On 11 August, 2015, the organization’s International Council Meeting passed a resolution requesting that the International Board develop “a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work”.

Amnesty’s International Board will, in turn, discuss this resolution at its next meeting in October 2015.

Amnesty International has a complex organizational structure. However, the Board is responsible to the International Council, and it will surely respond positively to the Council’s request. In doing so, it will need to consult widely before it adopts a final policy. We should expect continued public scrutiny of Amnesty’s deliberations, with much internal and external debate as the issue goes forward.

Full decriminalization?

Nonetheless, the International Council’s resolution requests that the policy’s measures “include the decriminalisation of sex work”. Furthermore, it seems clear that this wording is intended to mean so-called “full decriminalization”. Contrast the “Nordic model”, under which it is illegal to purchase, but not to sell, sex.

In an FAQ document, Amnesty decisively rejects the option of the Nordic model: “Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law.”

It seems, then, that the Board’s formal policy will call for the decriminalization of selling and purchasing sex, and of renting premises for the purpose. It will not necessarily oppose all regulation, however, and it may even advocate offences aimed at deterring pimps, such as an offence of living off the earnings of prostitution. Given the detailed considerations set out in the International Council’s resolution, the final policy will also include proposals to address exigencies (particularly poverty) that pressure women into prostitution.

Many issues arise from all this, such as whether Amnesty International is even an appropriate body to deal with such an issue, and what moral or technical authority it has when it does so. As a disclaimer, I once belonged to Amnesty International, but I left many years ago when it moved away from its focus on prisoners of conscience to take a much wider role in advocating for human rights issues. While there is clearly a place for organizations with that wider role, there was also, in my opinion, a place for an organization with a tight focus on prisoners of conscience – an issue where I was in full agreement.

I do not necessarily agree with any particular policy that Amnesty International develops these days: I look at Amnesty’s actions and policies on their merits. I don’t believe the organization is more authoritative than many others once it steps outside its original, specialized purpose.

How should we regulate sex work?

Still, my interest for current purposes is not so much in what Amnesty should or should not do, or in what policies it ought to adopt. Amnesty’s involvement has highlighted the larger question of how, if at all, prostitution and other kinds of sex work should be regulated by the state.

At one end of the spectrum would be a policy of relentless effort to eliminate prostitution (and perhaps other practices, such as strip clubs and pornography) including comprehensive use of the criminal law to punish both the sale and purchase of sex. At the other end of the spectrum would be some kind of highly libertarian approach. The state might turn a blind eye to sex work, including prostitution, unless there are associated activities that are independently criminalized (such as kidnapping, drug offences, and acts of violence such as rape, murder, and battery).

In between there is the Nordic model, with its own rationale, and various other approaches that involve regulation without sweeping criminal prohibitions. These approaches include, for example, various kinds of zoning and licensing.

This raises questions about the role of the law: e.g., whether it should enforce popular morality, whether it should be used to express moral positions, whether it ought to emphasize harm reduction, and whether legally permitting an activity is, in itself, a kind of social or political endorsement of the activity.

Philosophers have an interest in clarifying and teasing out these questions, irrespective of which policy approaches they end up supporting. Indeed, philosophical analysis sometimes leads to the dismal conclusion that more information is needed to support one or another policy position. For example, if we believe that the law should emphasize harm reduction we need to obtain some kind of answer to the question of what policy would (probably) be most effective in reducing harm. (If, alternatively, we seriously want to enforce popular morality, we need to know what that actually is in a particular case.)

Philosophers on the prostitution debate

The philosophy blog Daily Nous has published a post in which several prominent philosophers comment on public policy in relation to prostitution – responding, of course, to Amnesty’s deliberations. Not surprisingly, for anyone who is familiar with philosophy and philosophers, the responses are thoughtful and interesting. Also unsurprisingly, there is nothing like a consensus. Responses run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from Daily Nous are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers – or other people – are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.


As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

I’ll return to this – I promise. Meanwhile, Amnesty has brought an important issue to public attention, and whether we agree with its direction or not it has given us much to think about.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Locking horns over bioethics: The challenge from Steven Pinker

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

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 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.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Conservatives should embrace same-sex marriage

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, decided on 26 June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled by a 5-4 majority in favour of same-sex marriage. The majority judges have held that state governments must license same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages lawfully licensed and performed elsewhere.

The SCOTUS decision

The “opinion of the Court” – i.e. the opinion commanding a majority of judges – was delivered by Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, along with Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.

Although I have not yet digested the entire 100 pages of the judges’ opinions, it is clear that the case turned on the court’s interpretation of the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which, most relevantly, requires as follows: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The legal issue, then, was whether the refusal by numerous states of the union to license, register, and recognize same-sex marriages amounted to a breach of the Equal Protection Clause, i.e. a denial of the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868, soon after the American Civil War, and the obvious intention of the Equal Protection Clause was to forbid discrimination in the American legal systems of the time on racial grounds – particularly, it was to forbid discrimination against emancipated black slaves. The wording is, however, sweeping, and there is nothing to prevent its interpretation as forbidding discrimination by the law on the ground of sexual orientation.

Still, it’s obvious enough that, simply as a matter of black letter legal interpretation and established precedent, the case of same-sex marriage could be argued either way. After all, four of the nine judges dissented in this case, and a court with only a slightly different composition could have ruled the other way. Nor is it clear from what I’ve read so far that the dissenters reasoned in a merely contrived manner: they argue, with much exasperation but some plausibility, that it is the majority who have stretched the historical and legal intention of the words.

At the same time, it is also obvious enough how the words, broadly and generously construed, can be used to strike down state laws that allow opposite-sex couples to marry – with all that that entails socially and legally – while not allowing same-sex couples to do so.

My own support for the provision of same-sex marriages is already on the public record, so it’s not surprising that I welcome the outcome, and I am pleased for the same-sex couples who will benefit from it. (I examine the issues in some detail in my 2012 book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.) There is much euphoria, and I extend my congratulations to all the gay men and lesbians who will now have what was denied them: the ability to marry partners whom they love.

Conservatives should move on

There is also room for some dispassionate reflection on what this judgment really signifies in historical perspective. One point that has been missed by many commentators is that this legal victory for gay couples, the result of many years of activism, is not entirely a social defeat for conservatives; and, although they are not my political tribe, I urge them to embrace the outcome as reflecting a social compromise that they can live with and even take some comfort from.

For an earlier generation of left-wing activists, marriage was an outmoded, patriarchal, and oppressive institution aimed largely at reining in the sexuality of women. Prior to the 1980s, it had little attraction (or perceived relevance) to the gay and lesbian community, and many sexual radicals sought its destruction as a key social and legal institution.

For now, that viewpoint – one for which I retain some residual sympathy – has lost out. This happened in the context of a grand social compromise, whereby the nature of marriage was considerably, and increasingly, transformed. In earlier centuries, within European Christendom and its colonial extensions, the purposes of marriage tended to be patriarchal and disadvantageous to women, often less than romantic, and largely concerned with economic ends. The ideal of an equal union involving love, intimacy, and companionship gradually became the dominant understanding of marriage only during past two centuries or so, and marriage’s rejection as a means of sexual control – as a narrow circle within which sexual experience would be legally and socially acceptable – is even more recent.

The institution of marriage has survived the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It continues to maintain social prestige, and it retains deep emotional significance for most citizens, including very many gay men and lesbians. Once they shed their aversion to homosexuality itself – as, to their credit, many have – social conservatives should take heart that marriage is something that so many gay men and lesbians actually want, and that it remains, admittedly much transformed, a treasured and idealised institution.

Social conservatism likewise needs to transform itself: conservatives should accept the legal outcome in this case, understand the continuing social importance of marriage as in many ways a victory for their viewpoint, and move on. There are many other issues around which they can continue to define themselves. This should no longer be one of them. The contemporary conception of marriage is one that conservatives can find the resources to accept and value, but it is a conception of marriage from which gays can no longer rationally be excluded.

For the foreseeable future, at any rate, marriage is not going away as a crucial, widely endorsed and admired, social institution. The campaign leading up to the latest result in the US is evidence of that, and the Supreme Court victory may well consolidate, rather than diminish, the institution’s ongoing relevance.

The social meaning of marriage has altered dramatically over the past half-century – for the better, in my opinion – but note that Obergefell v. Hodges is the culmination of changes that had already taken place during that time. This social, and now legal, result confirms that marriage is a different, a kinder, more companionate, less patriarchal, institution from what it was in the eighteenth century or even, say, the 1950s. The provision of same-sex marriage makes sense only in that context: but again, the increasing availability of same-sex marriage is a result, not the cause, of the changing nature of marriage itself.

What about Australia?

My own country, Australia, is increasingly an outlier among Western liberal democracies in not providing for same-sex marriage. At this point, resistance to the idea has become absurd and unnecessary (even, I submit, from the viewpoint of realistic conservatives). It looks mean-spirited and out of touch.

Australian politicians need to understand that the popular mood has changed. Marriage itself has changed, along with its social meaning. It’s about time to accept that.

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.