Category Archives: Philosophy

Buffer Zones & Consistency

English: United States Supreme Court building ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/480488321

The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.

 

 

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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Environmental philosophy conferences: To fly, or not to fly?

Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?
First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly, the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.
The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead. Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen for that big famous failure of a climate conference, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.
And we need to show that another world is possible: we need to model doing things differently. (E.g. insisting on video-conferencing more, as I increasingly do; and helping to make this work.)
Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?
One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery. It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?
There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing. One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.
Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world. Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.
So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.
I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences. I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past. Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?
But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously
Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this. To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.
Two summers ago I had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.
On the plus side, I will soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Copenhagen (yes, the very same Copenhagen!) where I will be giving a talk on environmental governance, just as 2 years ago I spoke ‘at’ a Conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’ (though on that occasion the skype malfunctioned and we were reduced to a video-link). And last year, I organised a very successful multiple-person video-link with a Conference at UEA, and an equally-successful Skype lecture beamed into UEA by Hilary Putnam.
The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance two years back at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity. The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I went to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?
There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.
To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.
But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?
My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.
Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.

[[This is an updated version of a piece that appeared in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE a couple of years ago.]]

Religion as helpful precaution

http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management
Colleagues may find this article of mine, co-authored with Nassim Taleb, of interest. Suitably-provocative, perhaps, for philosophers, who are often inclined to think that religion is for morons, and that we are outgrowing it. Our case is that religion is probably on balance helpful to all of us (even philosophers: it is an absurd rationalistic delusion, an utter fantasy, to suppose that everything ought to be thought through from the beginning on every occasion, as some philosophers seem to suppose is an ideal), and that it might well be essential for species-survival / for the avoidance of ruin.

(I address the standard criticism – that lots of religion has been bad – here: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf , and in my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE.)

GM Food: Three Essential Considerations: Framing, Evidence, Precaution

[This article was co-authored by Phil Hutchinson myself. It appeared earlier this summer in THE PHILOSOPHER'S MAGAZINE. For those of you who missed it in print, here it is belatedly online.
Note: in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, there are what might be described as 'follow-up' articles by myself and (in a looser sense) by Nassim Taleb. Articles on precaution and uncertainty. [Advt.]]

We’ve moved on from “Frankenfood” scare stories. Haven’t we? Indeed, might we talk of GM food having its “Nuclear Power moment”? Just as prominent environmentalists such as Monbiot and Lynas took a decision to move from principled opposition to nuclear power to, along with Lovelock, promote the technology on pragmatic grounds, leaving their former activist fellow travellers feeling somewhat bewildered, and in some cases betrayed, one might be forgiven for believing that the same is now happening with GM crops. We will not here say anything further on the nuclear issue, though one might ultimately generate a position on this from what we propose below. However, on GM crops, Mark Lynas has certainly been very vocal in championing the GMO cause over the past year, both in the promotion of proposed new trials and in the criticism of those who oppose these. The rationale can appear, on the face of it, to be similarly pragmatic: population growth and climate-change related reductions in harvest yields will lead to increasing food shortages and food price-rises. Higher-yielding crops and crops with enhanced nutritional value are one, obvious, way to respond to such problems, and if GM crops might deliver higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, then it would seem sensible to forego principled, or certainly ‘knee-jerk’, objection to them and explore their potential. Right?
Would that it were so straightforward!
There are a wealth of considerations which should feed into our judgment on the proposed/alleged pragmatism of adopting GM crops. It is these, here, that we wish to focus on, and in particular those on which philosophy can shed some light. So, we will not here dwell, for instance, on the corporate dominance of most GM-research: on the profit-motive impelling the likes of Monsanto to gamble with our commons inheritance. There are powerful political arguments against GM, in connections such as this; we will largely leave these aside, in the present piece. We will divide the considerations that we shall focus on here into three categories: Framing, Evidence and Precaution.

Framing
Here’s the problem:
Global population growth + human-influenced climate-change-related lowering of crop yields = food crisis.
Framed this way it seems obvious: To solve the conundrum, we need to change the equation, so as to elicit a different outcome. We need to restrict population growth or reverse the crop yield decline such that it will compensate for the population growth.
But do we need to accept the equation? We would argue not. Indeed, it is the propensity to simplify the problem in a manner akin to this equation that is a key part of the problem. The equation prejudices one’s view of the problem by framing it in a particular way, because, while the global population does continue to grow, that population’s eating habits are also changing, becoming more western and meat-based. This is significant driver of food scarcity: feeding a cow maize and eating the cow is a very inefficient use of land, maize and water. The more meat we eat the more planets we require to provide our food, and extra, suitable planets are hard to find… . Moreover, while human-influenced climate change will affect crop yields, we can take steps to slow down that change rather than simply thinking in terms of adapting to the change as if it were inevitable.
The way ‘our’ equation frames the issue, if invoked to justify a pragmatic argument in favour of GM food, implies a false dichotomy: it implies that there are no other ways to enhance crop yields, rationalise food markets and supply-chains, radically reduce food waste, and rationalise consumption habits. Put another way, the proposed GMO solution to our problem can seem obvious and natural, or the most pragmatic one, because of basic liberal and individualist assumptions about the undesirability of seeking to change people’s (individuals) eating habits (desires, such as the desire to eat more meat). People have a right to eat what they want. Don’t they?
We can, and should, challenge the frames. At the very least, we should be cognisant of the way in which the argument tends to be framed, so that we might then subject that framing to rational scrutiny: is it obvious that when there is increased food stress, we should be handing more and more crop-worthy land (and food crops) over to beef production, all because we respect the ‘rights’ of consumers to buy more steak (or we respect the ‘market’)? Should we hand over more land for the growing of biofuels, because we (incorrectly) believe that will help us meet carbon targets and achieve energy security without infringing on the ‘rights’ of drivers as we allegedly would if we were to cap fuel/carbon emissions or to allow fuel prices to continue to escalate?
One of Lynas’s refrains, when pushed in a certain direction on these issues, is to respond to his disputant that they are advocating veganism; this response, delivered with a tacit sneer or an explicit chuckle, is sometimes accompanied by him ‘wishing them luck’ with that project. Changing eating habits, or simply trying to reverse recent global trends in eating habits, is just not seen as worth considering. We want our cake and we want to eat it, even if that means it is made with GM wheat.
Our response is to move beyond the hegemony of liberalism as a political philosophy. We urge that, at this point in history, it is particularly vital to challenge the cultural dominance of the idea of the ‘individual-as-consumer’ (home economicus), and of the alleged sacrosanctness of their choices and of choice itself.
In short: We need new frames. Only their illicitly-presumed absence can make GM look like a no-brainer.

Evidence
Our second category is evidence. We are all now becoming familiar with the mantra, in policy circles at least, that one’s proposals be evidence-based.
Quite right. But “what counts as evidence?” is an important question to be asked. And “what, in addition to the evidence, are also important factors in our deliberations?” is equally crucial.
So, you might see our section on Precaution, below, where we argue that precaution should always accompany evidence in the policy decision-making process. And we would also suggest that one beware of “evidence” being used as a buzzword or as Unspeak . Like “Freedom” and “Democracy”, “Evidence” is a “Hooray word”. Surely no one would/can be against evidence! But here’s the rub; if a word is so unremittingly good then people will use it to cover-up the bad, or to pass-off the not so good as good. German Democratic Republic anyone? (i.e. democracy that involves very few recognisably democratic institutions; where the _demos_, the people, have no role in policy). Cato Institute style Freedom anyone? (i.e. freedom that transpires to be the freedom of corporations to deny freedom to all kinds of non-corporate groups.).
But let us here consider the evidence in a recent widely-reported and high-profile case. A GM company in Hertfordshire, Rothamsted Research, made a press release in late January 2014. They were all over the British media, from an early morning slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 24th, where they talked-up the health benefits to humans of Omega 3 enhanced crops, to reports in all the newspapers and on TV news bulletins. Mark Lynas joined the party, and promoted their press release via Twitter, while also working as a kind of tweet-tag-team with the Rothamsted publicity department.
There were two stories wrapped up in one: one was a story about Omega 3 camelina; the other was a kind of meta-story about this being an obviously good-news and game-changing story about GM; one that even the most dyed-in-the-(non-GM)-wool Monsanto-haters would see was good news. The Today programme pushed both angles. Rothamsted must have been pleased.
See how the second story kinda shows how the Rothamsted press release was just swallowed by the same media, as if it were an easy to swallow Omega 3 fish oil capsule? Should journalists not rather have subjected the press release to some scrutiny?
Well, what’s not to like? Everyone knows that Omega 3 is a wonder-oil, which prevents all kinds of health problems. Health gurus, magazine covers, newspaper articles, food packaging, even some medically trained celebrity doctors, have all been telling us for over a decade now that Omega 3 oil is important: it prevents cancer, heart disease, and both increases and decreases the aggression of prostate cancer (no, really). It increases intelligence, both in a person eating it and in a foetus through a mother ingesting it while pregnant, though we assume the claim is that it increases intelligence later in life, since foetus-intelligence is a young science. Moreover, Omega 3 has been claimed to prevent all kinds of behavioural conditions in children and adolescents, and make school boys and prison inmates less aggressive. You can even polish the screen of your widescreen LED TV with it and thereby increase your popularity with all the neighbourhood cats. Yet not everyone has a taste for, or can afford, to eat the oily fish in which it is most readily found. If we cannot grow fish on trees, then how about the next best thing: grow fish genes inside a plant. Eureka. Meow.
Well, what’s the evidence? We mean: surely we’re not here basing our enthusiasm on over a decade of food industry and supplement purveyors’ propaganda about Omega 3 rather than well founded data, are we..? Well yes, it does seem that we might be. One might, for example, read the chapter of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, where he discusses claims made for Omega 3. One might even conduct one’s own survey of RCTs, and even some meta-analyses of RCTs, on the claimed and widely assumed health benefits of Omega 3 oil supplements. Use Pub Med, etc. What one will find is the following:
a. There is NO conclusive evidence for health-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial when consumed separately from the fish, i.e. as a supplement.
b. Indeed, the evidence for it being beneficial when consumed as part of the fish is barely conclusive. Study after study notes something akin to the following: it is difficult to discern whether the good health of those studied emerges from the consumption of oily fish or from the overall diet and lifestyles enjoyed by those people who tend to eat a diet containing large amounts of oily fish.
c. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 (EPA & DHA) over and above that which our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3, which can be gained from things like flax, hemp, chia and green leafy vegetables, if we have a healthy diet.
In short: The past decade of Omega 3 hype has been market-driven, not evidence-driven.
Repeatedly, one finds there are good evidence-based reasons which count against GM-hype. Such reasons need to be developed specifically, in each case.
GM’s defenders will respond that there is at least scant evidence of harm from GM (unlike nuclear). This takes us to our next and final category of consideration. Absence of evidence of harm, even when genuine, is not evidence of absence of harm:

Precaution
Taking a gene from a fish and sticking it in a vegetable is reckless. It is to act in a way radically without natural precedent. Now, defenders of GM sometimes say that nevertheless there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. But: Even if this is true, it is not good enough. The burden of proof is on them, the GM engineers, to provide evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have, and what will be very difficult ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk. Because field trials expose the entire environment to the risk of contamination. They are not like controlled indoor laboratory trials.
There are powerful forces in our world today seeking to shift the burden of proof. These forces – which include the US and UK Governments — wish us to have to provide an ‘evidence-base’ against (e.g.) GM, an evidence-base of actual harm, before we act precautiously in respect of it. They wish, in effect, to abolish the Precautionary Principle and to replace it with a purely backward-looking methodology of ‘evidence-based’ interventions. Such an ‘evidence-based’ approach is valid when the stakes are not that high and when we can learn from tinkering and from study of the results. It is not valid when we may face ruin as a consequence. As is the case with GM (and also with geo-engineering, the next gamble that we will all soon be invited to embrace, on the extraordinary basis that there is as yet no evidence of harm from it!). One is cautious when one has reason to be so; when one has reason to believe there is a danger or a threat. The logic of precaution, we suggest, should be understood as follows: when what we do now has unpredictable though potentially catastrophic future consequences then we should exercise precaution. We are not exercising caution based on a perceived threat, but exercising precaution because we do not have good reason to believe there is an absence of threat, while also having reason to surmise that where a threat might materialise it would be significant.
Regarding GMO, we have not been provided with good reason to believe that there will not transpire to be a threat, even from field trials, much less a move to widespread farming, and that such a threat would be, should it transpire, be insignificant and reversible. These are then rational grounds for invoking precaution. While there is no directly-perceived threat to be cited in advance, we have no grounds for believing no threat will emerge, while having reasonable grounds for believing any such threat would be significant and probably irreversible. This is enough to rationally motivate invoking the precautionary principle.
We have a responsibility not to be blinded by science: to combat scientism. We have a responsibility to show the way beyond scientism, and to help science flourish in its true area of application. We have a responsibility to highlight the categorial distinction between science and technology: being pro-science, in its true sense, has no implications for whether one supports the social implementation of one or another particular form of technology or engineering.
We propose a more considered, rational approach, which resists the frenzy around ‘evidence-based’ approaches, when these are proposed separate from their frames and from rational precautionary considerations.
We have a responsibility to support responsible evidence-based methodology, where such methodology is appropriate: we have given an example of this above, vis a vis camelina. Another (not unrelated) genus of examples is the use of EBM to undercut the claim of various pharmaceuticals, as Ben Goldacre has helpfully done.
We have a responsibility to bring thought to bear on issues of framing, in the kind of way practiced by Lakoff, Poole, Crompton, and others. We have a responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom: e.g. the cultural ‘common-sense’ of liberal individualism in the West today. But not to carry such ‘scepticism’ into a deniallism about what science, in its correct area of application, teaches us: As Wittgenstein remarks in Culture and Value, the philosopher must avoid getting into the predicament of an incompetent (would-be) manager, trying to do others’ jobs for them.
Perhaps above all, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power concerning the would-be managerialist and profit-motivated replacement of long-term considerations of precaution with a covertly short-termist rhetoric of being ‘evidence-based’, a rhetoric that is ignorant of the philosophical issues around uncertainty and risk that are present and explored in the recent work of Nassim Taleb, among others (Cf. Read’s co-authored work with Taleb: e.g. http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management & http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf). And that underly the attitude of the likes of James Hansen to the climate threat facing our world at present: Philosophers and intellectuals more generally carry a heavy responsibility to not be tricked by rhetorics or ideologies of ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ into waiting to set out crucial warnings until it is too late.

On both evidential grounds, and precautionary grounds, the case for Omega-3 GM camelina is disastrously weak. To generalise: evidence-based thinking can undercut the case for GM, as well as sometimes supporting it. Precautionary thinking, a vital complement to (and more fundamental than) evidence-based thinking, will generally count as a heavy consideration against GM. When one adds in the power of reframing and of reflection on frames, as found initially in the work of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Lakoff and Johnson, etc, then one has a powerful cocktail indeed in one’s hands. Our recommendation is: to drink it. Or perhaps better: to throw it.

Anyone Home?

English: man coming out of coma.

English: man coming out of coma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I tell my students, the metaphysical question of personal identity has important moral implications. One scenario I present is that of a human in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state. I say “human” rather than “person”, because the human body in question might no longer be a person. To use a common view, if a person is her soul and the soul has abandoned the shell, then the person is gone.

If the human is still a person, then it seems reasonable to believe that she has a different moral status than a mass of flesh that was once a person (or once served as the body of a person). This is not to say that a non-person human would have no moral status at all—I do not want to be interpreted as holding that view. Rather, my view is that personhood is a relevant factor in the morality of how an entity is treated.

To use a concrete example, consider a human in what seems to be a vegetative state. While the body is kept alive, people do not talk to the body and no attempt is made to entertain the body, such as playing music or audiobooks. If there is no person present or if there is a person present but she has no sensory access at all, then this treatment would seem to be acceptable—after all it would make no difference whether people talked to the body or not.

There is also the moral question of whether such a body should be kept alive—after all, if the person is gone, there would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep an empty shell alive. To use an extreme example, it would seem wrong to keep a headless body alive just because it can be kept alive. If the body is no longer a person (or no longer hosts a person), then this would be analogous to keeping the headless body alive.

But, if despite appearances, there is still a person present who is aware of what is going on around her, then the matter is significantly different. In this case, the person has been effectively isolated—which is certainly not good for a person.

In regards to keeping the body alive, if there is a person present, then the situation would be morally different. After all, the moral status of a person is different from that of a mass of merely living flesh. The moral challenge, then, is deciding what to do.

One option is, obviously enough, to treat all seemingly vegetative (as opposed to brain dead) bodies as if the person was still present. That is, the body would be accorded the moral status of a person and treated as such.

This is a morally safe option—it would presumably be better that some non-persons get treated as persons rather than risk persons being treated as non-persons. That said, it would still seem both useful and important to know.

One reason to know is purely practical: if people know that a person is present, then they would presumably be more inclined to take the effort to treat the person as a person. So, for example, if the family and medical staff know that Bill is still Bill and not just an empty shell, they would tend to be more diligent in treating Bill as a person.

Another reason to know is both practical and moral: should scenarios arise in which hard choices have to be made, knowing whether a person is present or not would be rather critical. That said, given that one might not know for sure that the body is not a person anymore it could be correct to keep treating the alleged shell as a person even when it seems likely that he is not. This brings up the obvious practical problem: how to tell when a person is present.

Most of the time we judge there is a person present based on appearance, using the assumption that a human is a person. Of course, there might be non-human people and there might be biological humans that are not people (headless bodies, for example). A somewhat more sophisticated approach is to use the Descartes’s test: things that use true language are people. Descartes, being a smart person, did not limit language to speaking or writing—he included making signs of the sort used to communicate with the deaf. In a practical sense, getting an intelligent response to an inquiry can be seen as a sign that a person is present.

In the case of a body in an apparent vegetative state applying this test is quite a challenge. After all, this state is marked by an inability to show awareness. In some cases, the apparent vegetative state is exactly what it appears to be. In other cases, a person might be in what is called “locked-in-syndrome.” The person is conscious, but can be mistaken for being minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. Since the person cannot, typically, respond by giving an external sign some other means is necessary.

One breakthrough in this area is due to Adrian M. Owen. Overs implying things considerably, he found that if a person is asked to visualize certain activities (playing tennis, for example), doing so will trigger different areas of the brain. This activity can be detected using the appropriate machines. So, a person can ask a question such as “did you go to college at Michigan State?” and request that the person visualize playing tennis for “yes” or visualize walking around her house for “no.” This method provides a way of determining that the person is still present with a reasonable degree of confidence. Naturally, a failure to respond would not prove that a person is not present—the person could still remain, yet be unable (or unwilling) to hear or respond.

One moral issue this method can held address is that of terminating life support. “Pulling the plug” on what might be a person without consent is, to say the least, morally problematic. If a person is still present and can be reached by Owen’s method, then thus would allow the person to agree to or request that she be taken off life support. Naturally, there would be practical questions about the accuracy of the method, but this is distinct from the more abstract ethical issue.

It must be noted that the consent of the person would not automatically make termination morally acceptable—after all, there are moral objections to letting a person die in this manner even when the person is fully and clearly conscious. Once it is established that the method adequately shows consent (or lack of consent), the broader moral issue of the right to die would need to be addressed.

 

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Scientism, Quietism and Continental Philosophy

Peter Unger was recently interviewed about his new book that critiques Analytic Philosophy, and in the interview he says a lot of things that plenty of Continental Philosophers would not disagree with. But his response is not to turn to Continental philosophy – not at all. Even Bertrand Russell is, in essence, too “Continental” in tone for Unger. He quotes Russell contemplating the value of philosophy as not something that seeks answers, because the questions of philosophy cannot be determinately answered, but rather as expanding the intellectual imagination, and then dismisses this as “nonsense.”

Unger’s reasoning seems to be that a test could be done to check how creative or dogmatic a person is, which presumably means that we could check whether studying philosophy does or does not enrich our intellectual imagination. This misses the point on two levels – we don’t do such tests so his argument is moot to start with, but more important, the idea is that those who grasp the value of philosophy will be affected by definition; those who don’t are misunderstanding its purpose.

We owe the word to Socrates, who distinguished between sophists, those who merely argue for the sake of it, and philosophers, lovers of wisdom. Socrates famously tells the story of his realization that the Oracle at Delphi may not have been wrong in proclaiming him the wisest man in Athens when he defines what it really means to be wise. He knows that he knows nothing while the other men think they have answers. To believe oneself to have things more figured out than everyone else – as Unger, it’s worth noting, repeatedly does – is a form of egotism disappointing to see in a mind meant to be devoted to the nature of being. One man’s capacities may exceed another’s when we are comparing everyday activities but when the ability at issue is the comprehension of the infinite, the significance is surely reduced. All our lives are short in comparison to the age of the universe.

Unger does mention the Ancients – he says “He [Kit Fine] has no more idea of what he’s doing than Aristotle did, and in Aristotle’s day there was an excuse: nobody knew anything”. This attitude shows his commitment to the scientistic point of view. He states at the outset of the interview that the goal of philosophy is to “write up deep stories which are true, or pretty nearly true, about how it is with the world. By that I especially mean the world of things that includes themselves, and everything that’s spatio-temporally related to them, or anything that has a causal effect on anything else, and so on.” Of course, a phrase like “and so on” may mislead, but it certainly does not sound as if Unger has any interest in questions of meaning or human experience. His dismissal of Ancient investigations as hopeless is particularly telling, though. What does it mean to claim that they “knew nothing”? In some ways, they were more aware of much that we’ve since forgotten – the rotation of the seasons, the placement of the stars, the behavior of animals or the preparation of foods that were common knowledge are now specialized or in some cases, just unavailable (e.g., consider light pollution in regards to the night sky). Being industrialized has increased technology but technology is not equivalent to knowledge – it’s just one form of knowledge.

Analytic philosophers who discover (after already becoming philosophers) that philosophy is not a form of science often propose that the answer is to give up philosophy altogether – turn out the lights and go home. Doing this as a book in the genre tends to seem a bit hypocritical, but then, the Analytic thinkers who do give it up will only have the chance to make the argument at cocktail parties. More worth addressing is the fact that Unger avoids mentioning the Continental approach at all. He suggests that philosophy may be “literature” for some, but what this means is unclear (beyond its implying a general worthlessness). From outside the Analytic tradition, philosophy is not the same as literature, but it’s the not the same as science either. It has its own category, as the exploration and contextualization of our place in the world.

As Emerson said, each age must write its own books. The wisdom of the past cannot be genetically infused into the next generation. Information is handed down, but true understanding has to be struggled through again and again, and grasped within each particular culture or time.

One last thought: The writer of the interview might think I’m recommending meditation and enlightenment, per the bookstore mentioned at the end of her piece. While I’m not, I think it’s worth bringing up that there are plenty of books in Western philosophy stores that are just as silly as those self-help texts look (was there one about Plato and a Platypus recently?), and Eastern texts that are worthwhile. Unger defines it as all the same in value (“nothing much”) while different in type (“this” vs “that”) whereas I would say it is the difference in value which is paramount; the types may blend together and overlap given that the subject is so great.

Presidents, Pay & Student Debt

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State...

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I received my doctorate from the Ohio State University, I usually feel a tiny bit of unjustified pride when I hear that OSU is #1 in some area. However, I recently found out that OSU is #1 in that the school is the most unequal public university in America. The basis for this claim is that between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average (which is itself rather bad).

Like many schools, OSU also pursued what I call the A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by the school were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000 while the average professor makes about $84,000. University presidents make much, much more (the average is $478,896) and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing. Such a president would make at least as much as 40 or more adjuncts (teaching 8 or more classes an academic year).

Given that the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, thus resulting in a corresponding increase in student debt, it is well worth considering the cause of this increase and what could be done to reduced costs without reducing the quality of education.

One seemingly obvious approach is to consider whether or not presidents are worth the money spent on them. For the million dollar pay to be fair, the president of a university would need to contribute the equivalent of these 40+ adjuncts in terms of value created. It could, of course, be argued that the public university presidents do just that—they bring in money from other rich people, provide prestige and engage in the politics needed to keep money flowing from the state. If so, a million dollar president is worth 40+ adjuncts. If not, it would seem that either the adjuncts should be paid more or the president paid less (or both) in order to ensure that money is not being wasted—and thus needlessly driving up the cost of education.

At this point, a rather obvious reply is that for big public universities, even a million dollar president is but a tiny part of the overall budget. As such, cutting the presidential salary would not result in a significant saving for the school or the students (assuming savings would be passed on to students). However, something is obviously driving up the cost of education—and it is rather clearly not faculty salary, since the majority of faculty at most public universities is composed of low paid adjuncts.

One major contribution to the increasing costs has been the increase in the size and cost of the administrative aspect of universities. A recent study found that the public universities that have the highest administrative pay spend half as much on scholarships as they do on administration. This creates a scenario in which students go into debt being taught by adjuncts while supporting a large and often well paid administration. This is not surprising given the example of OSU (hiring 543 instructors and 670 administrators).

It is, of course, easy enough to demonize administrators as useless parasites growing fat on the students, adjuncts and taxpayers. However, a university (like any organization) requires administration. Applications need to be processed, equipment needs to be purchased, programs need to be directed, forms from the state need to be completed, and the payroll has to be handled and so on. As such, there is a clear and legitimate need for administrators. However, this does not entail that all the administrators are needed or that all the high salaries are warranted. As such, one potential way to lower the cost of education is to reduce administrative positions and lower salaries. That is, to take a standard approach used in the business model so often beloved by certain administrators.

Since a public university is not a for-profit institution, the reason for the reduction should be to get the costs in line with the legitimate needs, rather than to make a profit. As such, the reductions could be more just (or merciful) than in the for-profit sector.

In terms of reducing personal, the focus should be on determining which positions are actually needed in terms of what they do in terms of advancing the core mission of the university (which should be education). In terms of reducing salary, the focus should be on determining the value generated by the person and the salary should match that. Since administrators seem exceptionally skilled at judging what faculty (especially adjuncts) should be paid, presumably there is a comparable skill for judging what administrators should be paid.

Interestingly enough, a great deal of the administrative work that directly relates to students and education is already handled by faculty. For example, on top of my paid duties as a professor, I have a stack of unpaid administrative duties that are apparently essential for me to do, yet not important enough to properly count as part of my workload. In this I am not unusual. Not surprisingly, many faculty wonder what some administrators actually do, given that so many administrative tasks are handled by faculty and staff. Presumably the extra administrative work done by faculty (usually effectively for free) is already helping schools save money, although perhaps more could be offloaded to faculty for additional savings.

One rather obvious problem is that the people who make the decisions about the administration positions and salaries are typically administrators. While some people are noble and honest enough to report on the true value of their position, self-interest clearly makes an objective assessment problematic. As such, it seems unlikely that the administration would want to act to reduce the administration merely to reduce the cost of education. This is, of course, not impossible—and some administrators would not doubt be quite willing to fire or cut the salaries of other administrators.

Since many state governments have been willing to engage in close management of state universities, one option is for these governments to impose a thorough examination of administrative costs and implement solutions to the high cost of education. Unfortunately, there are sometimes strong political ties between top administrators and the state government and there is the general worry that any cuts will be more political or ill-informed than rationally based.

Despite these challenges, it is clear that the administrative costs need to be addressed head on and that action must be taken—the alternative is ever increasing costs in return for less actual education.

It has also been suggested that the interest rates of student loans be lowered and that more grants be awarded to students. These are both good ideas—those who graduate from college generally have significantly better incomes and end up paying back what they received many times over in taxes and other contributions. However, providing students with more money from the taxpayers does not directly address the cost of education—it shifts it.

Some states, such as my adopted state of Florida, have endeavored to keep costs lower by refusing to increase tuition. While this seems reasonable, one obvious problem is that keeping tuition low without addressing the causes of increased costs does not actually solve the problem—what usually ends up happening is that the university has to cut expenses in response and these cuts tend to be in areas that actually serve the core mission of the university. For example, the university president’s high salary, guaranteed bonuses and perks are not cut—instead faculty are not hired and class sizes are increased. While the tuition does not increase, it does so at the cost of the quality of education. Unless, of course, the guaranteed bonuses of the president are key to education quality.

As such, the primary focus should be on lowering costs in a way that does not sacrifice the quality of education rather than simply lowering costs.

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The real reason why libertarians become climate-deniers

We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. …But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.

Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.

Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.

But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.

Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…). In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)

This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…

Libertarianism likes to present itself as a philosophy or ideology that is rigorously objective. Wedded to the truth, and rationality. Ayn Rand called her cod-philosophy ‘Objectivism’. Tibor Machan and other well-known libertarian philosophers today place a central emphasis on reason as their guide. Libertarians like to think that they are honest, where others aren’t, about ‘human nature’ (it’s thoroughly selfish), and like to claim that there is something self-deceptive or propagandistically dishonest about socialism, ecologism and other rival philosophies. Without its central claim to hard-nosed objectivity, truth and rationality, libertarianism would be nothing.

But this central commitment is in profound tension with the libertarian commitment, equally absolute, to ‘liberty’. For truth, truths, truthfulness, rationality, objectivity, impose a ‘constraint’. A massive utterly implacable constraint, on one’s license to do and believe and think whatever one wants. One cannot be Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in a world of truth and reason. One cannot intelligibly think that freedom of thought requires complete license, or that moral freedom requires complete individual license, in such a world.

The dilemma of the libertarian was already laid bare in the progress of the thinking of a hero of some libertarians, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the great third and final essay of his masterpiece THE GENEALOGY OF MORALITY. Nietzsche can appear on a superficial reading of that essay to be endorsing a kind of artistic disregard for truth; it turns out, as the essay follows its remarkable course, that this is far from so; in fact, it is the opposite of the truth. In the end, taking further a line of thought that he began in the great fifth book of THE GAY SCIENCE, Nietzsche lines up as a fanatical advocate of truth: he speaks of drawing the hard consequences of being no longer willing to accept the lie of theism, and of “we godless metaphysicians” as the true heirs of Plato: “Even we seekers after knowledge today”, Nietzsche writes, “we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”

He contrasts his stance with that of the legendary Assassins, who held that “Nothing is true, [and therefore] everything is permitted”. He admires their ambition, but absolutely cannot find himself able to simply agree with what they said.

Contemporary libertarianism is stuck in a completely cleft stick: stuck wanting to agree with Nietzsche’s considered position and yet wanting to endorse something like the Assassins’ creed too. Libertarianism, centred as its name makes plain on the notion of ‘complete’ individual freedom, inevitably runs up, sooner or later, against ‘shackles’: the limits imposed on one’s thought and action by adherence to truth. (Acknowledging the truth of human-induced dangerous climate change is only the most obvious case of this; there are many many others. )

This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”

This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself. . . Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.

The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.

To sum up. Libertarianism was founded on the love for truth and reason; but it is founded also, of course, on the inviolability of the individual. Taken to its ‘logical’ conclusion, truth itself is (felt as) an ‘imposition’ on the individual. The sovereign liberty of the self, in libertarianism, is at ineradicable odds with the willingness to accept ‘others” truths. And it is the former, sadly, which tends to win out. For, as we have seen, the denial, by libertarians, of elementary contemporary scientific truths such as that of the theory of greenhouse-gas-heat-build-up, is over-determined. When truth clashes with a dogmatic insistence on one’s own complete’ freedom of mental and physical manouevre, and with profit; when the truth is that we are going to have to rein in some of our appetites if we are to bequeath a habitable world to our children’s children…then the truth is: that truth itself is an obstacle easily overcome, by the will of weak only-too-human libertarians.

The obsession of libertarians with individual liberty crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their thinking becomes voluntaristic and contrarian for the sake of it. They end up believing simply what they WANT to believe. And, as explained above, they don’t WANT to accept the truths of ecology, of climate science, etc. . And so they deny them.

As Wittgenstein famously remarked: the real difficulty in philosophy is one of the will, more even than of the intellect. What is hard is to will oneself to accept things that are true that one doesn’t want to believe, and moreover that (in the case of some on the ‘hard’ Right) one’s salary or one’s stock-options or one’s ability to live with oneself depend on one not believing.

It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.