Tag Archives: Harry Frankfurt

Book Club: On Inequality 1, Economic equality as a moral ideal

Footnotes to Plato

Time to get started with a new book! This time it’s going to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality, an obviously current topic. Frankfurt, of course, is the author of a number of well received, often slim and incisive, books, most famously On Bullshit, where he clarifies, among other things, the distinction between a liar (one who knows the truth, and uses it to effectively deceive others) and a bullshitter (one who uses a chaotic mix of truths, half truths and lies in order to get whatever he wants — the current President of the United States arguably being the archetypal example).

Frankfurt divides On Inequality into two parts: economic equality as a moral ideal, and equality and respect. I will discuss the first part here and the second one in my next post.

The discussion of economic equality as a moral ideal begins with Frankfurt’s statement that the…

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Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.


Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney


The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University


The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin


Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Our ancestors were carnivorous super-predators, so do we really have a choice about eating meat?

The Conversation

Darren Curnoe, UNSW Australia

The internet abounds with ‘expert advice’ on what we should or shouldn’t eat. High carb or low carb diets? Grains or gluten free eating? Meat eating or veganism?

Most of it promotes our food choices as a simple binary decision – eat this don’t eat that; this is good for you, that’s bad.

Yet, the decisions we make about what to eat are a complicated affair. They’re never a simple case of eat what’s best for your health or what naturally suits our physiology.

Cultural mores, religious practices, ethical concerns, gender, stage of life and state of health, geographic location, economics and family and individual preferences all play a role in the selections we make.

One of the most confusing choices people face is whether to eat meat or not, and opinions are very strong on both sides of the debate. But is it natural to do so?

Our ancestors evolved to be super-predators with meat eating and sharing a key survival strategy for our kind for millions of years. So, do we really have a choice to eat meat today?

Things to eat and avoid

Culture is a ubiquitous force when it comes to making choices about food. All human societies, from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial ones like our own, have food preferences and fads, or restrictions and taboos.

We eat things because they taste good, even if they are bad for us. Other things we avoid have proven health benefits, but maybe they’re simply not as tasty or palatable.

Sometimes food taboos exist for good reason – such as to prevent overuse of an important resource or to reduce the risk of food poisoning at an important stage of life.

But just as often we find dietary preferences are culturally patterned behaviours, such as women changing their diet at varying times in their menstrual cycle, despite the practice having negative health consequences.

On top of this, certain nutrients like sugar activate reward pathways in the brain similar to those associated with cocaine use, making them highly sought after, and potentially addictive.

Much of the dietary advice found on the internet might be well meaning, but a substantial amount of it is misleading and frequently smacks of anti-intellectualism.

Bowls full of bullshit

More often than not though the ease with which we can post our opinions online has led to a glut of dietary advice that can only be described as ‘bullshit’.

Bullshit is defined by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt to mean something espoused by someone who pretends to know a lot about it but actually knows very little.

It’s rife on the internet and fuels both anti-intellectualism and a deep mistrust of scientific authority.

The debate about meat, and whether we humans have evolved to eat it, has to be one of the best examples of bullshit seen on the web.

It has largely lost all sense of the complex reality of food choice behaviours, and far too often tries to rewrite our evolutionary history by invoking pseudoscience.

Some pro-vegetarian or vegan promoting websites mistakenly claim that humans shouldn’t eat meat because we evolved to be herbivores.

The substance of their arguments is often traceable back to the influential but pseudoscientific views of vegan physician Milton R. Mills.

Some vegan sites even claim support from anthropology for their anti-meat agenda.

We also find bogus arguments like these promoted in the mainstream media where some columnists push an anti-intellectual agenda by misrepresenting the views of scientists themselves such as fellow anthropologist Richard Leakey.

For the record, here’s what he has actually written about meat eating and human evolution.

But if you love a good steak, don’t take the moral high ground just yet. There’s plenty of bullshit in the pro-meat camp as well.

One need only read internet debates on the subject of meat eating to see barnyards full of it on both sides.

As an interesting aside, social anthropologists have found meat to be the one food that’s subject to food taboos across a large number of cultures.

So, there might be a much deeper (genetic?) origin to our varying opinions towards meat, with some people loving it, and others repulsed by it, across the world.

Humans evolved as super-predators

No matter what the most militant of vegans or vegetarians would like to think, there’s an abundance of scientific evidence that we humans evolved to be predator apes.

Our ancestors were highly skilled hunters and meat was widely eaten and highly prized.

While hunter-gatherers varied considerably in terms of how much meat they consumed, none of them was vegan, and such diets simply wouldn’t have been available or viable options for them anyway.

Our human ecological and life history strategy evolved around acquiring and sharing hard to catch, but large pay-off, foods such as big mammals and fish.

We humans rely on culture for everything we do, whether it be the values and shared ideas we have about the world, social relationships, or the methods and tools we use to aid with the catching and processing food.

The earliest examples of stone tools used for acquiring and processing food have been found in Africa and date to around 3.3 million years old.

Butchered and defleshed bones from around the same time indicate clearly that early humans were butchering large bodied mammals for food.

Fire was probably used in an at least an ad hoc way from around 1.6 million years ago – probably much earlier – but became a regular tool for pre-modern humans from at least 400,000 years ago.

Cooking played a major role in making both meat and starchy foods palatable and digestible, providing our ancestors with a huge survival advantage.

Food cooking, especially of meat, may even have contributed to the evolution of our large brains.

Endurance running, persistence hunting

Humans are the only living primate adapted for running – particularly endurance running, and during the hottest time of the day. This seems also to be a universal pattern among the species belonging to the human genus Homo; all dozen or more of us.

The organs of balance – our vestibular system – are designed to help keep the head stable because of its tendency to pitch forward when running.

Humans possess a nuchal ligament to connect the base of the skull to the spinal column and help keep the head balanced as we run.

We have long lower limbs and a narrow trunk and pelvis. Our rib-cage is barrel shaped rather than shaped like a funnel with a bulging gut, like chimpanzees.

The muscles of our shoulder are decoupled from those of our neck because they aren’t used for climbing, aiding the need to counterbalance the legs and reduce rotation of the head when running.

Many of our lower limb muscles and their tendons – like the gluteus maximus, iliotibial tract and Achilles tendon– are also adapted for running.

We have large ankle bones, arches across two directions of the foot, and the ligaments of the foot absorb energy when we run releasing it during toe-off.

Our big toe has been brought into line with the other toes, losing its branch grasping abilities.

Humans have sparse and short body hair and between 5 and 12 million appocrine sweat glands that can produce up to 12 litres of water a day to help prevent hyperthermia.

The only other African mammals that are active during the heat of the day, running long distances, are dogs and hyenas.

Our species also has uniformly pigmented skin – the exception being people living at high latitude who probably lost their skin colour very recently.

Pigmentation protects the outer layers of the skin against sun damage and ultimately skin cancer, so is vital for a mammal that has sparse body hair and is active in the heat of the day.

All of this points to hunting, and a particular style called the persistence hunt. It would have been widespread prior to the invention of weapons like bows and arrows around 60,000 years ago.

David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals series has some wonderfully engaging footage of San men undertaking a persistence hunt. It’s well worth a look.

A gutsy move

To claim we shouldn’t eat meat because we aren’t anatomically identical to carnivores demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how evolution has worked.

Humans and carnivores, like dogs and hyenas, are very different kinds of mammals, separated by around 100 million years of evolutionary history.

We are primates, and our basic body plan is constrained genetically by our primate heritage. You can’t turn an ape into a wolf in just 3 million years!

While much has been made of our sacculated colon, this is a feature common to all apes, and is the result of common evolutionary inheritance.

We have all evolved from plant eating apes regardless of what we eat today. A sacculated colon in no way suggests we are herbivores.

Besides, humans do eat a lot more than just meat and clearly require a wide range of foods for a balanced diet. For example, no apes can synthesise vitamin C in their bodies so it must be acquired from plant food sources.

However, the human gut differs substantially from other apes in a couple of key respects: first, we have a small total gut for our body size, and second, our greatest gut volume lies in the small intestine, while in other apes it lies in the colon.

A bigger small intestine indicates we absorb most of our nutrients there, and that we obtain them from high quality, nutrient dense, sources like meat and starchy foods.

While a large colon, as seen in all other apes, fits with their strongly plant based diet (87-99% of foods) and the need to ferment it. Humans simply can’t survive on the type of diet we see chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans or gibbons eating.

Another disturbing piece of evidence worth noting is tapeworms. Each year millions of people around the world are infected with them through eating under-cooked or raw meat.

And here’s the rub: without infecting a human host, at least four species of tapeworm would be unable to reproduce. Humans are a definitive host for them.

The only other mammals to be definitive hosts for tapeworms are carnivores like lions and hyenas.

Molecular clocks suggest human tapeworms evolved about the time our ancestors began to hunt.

Briefly, two other human features need mentioning because they have been widely used to mislead people on the issue of meat eating.

Our teeth are very similar to those of other apes in terms of the size, shape and number we posses – all apes and Old World monkeys have 32.

But there’s one important difference: we humans have small canine teeth.

The canine teeth of apes are not used for catching prey or chewing food. Instead they are for display and are used by males to battle it out for dominance in a social hierarchy or for access to mates.

A small canine tooth evolved in human evolution sometime after 5 million years ago and represents a shift in the social structure and mating behaviour of our ancestors.

It shows us that male-to-male conflict had reduced. Perhaps because males were sharing food with females and each other. Males and females may even have been monogamous at this time.

Lastly, humans have nails instead of claws because we are primates. No primates have claws. So to claim that our lack of claws shows we shouldn’t eat meat again indicates a clear lack of familiarity with our biology.

Besides, early human hunters used tools, their big brains and understanding of their environment and cooperative tendencies to catch food, not their brawn.

Making informed choices

There is a danger in taking our evolutionary history as fate. We are no longer hunter-gatherers and our lifestyle is about as far removed from that of our ancestors as can be imagined.

We need to adapt to our changing circumstances and find a diet that healthily supports it, like we have always done as a species.

Whether we choose to eat meat or not is not just a question of biology. It involves a complex set of cultural, social, ethical, health, personal and economic factors as well. It is not binary.

The best guide for most people on how to eat comes from science itself, for example, as presented in guidelines like those from the Australian Government.

But many millions of people today survive on low or no meat diets, by choice, or otherwise. In this sense, vegetarianism or veganism is like any other culturally situated dietary choice.

It should be both understood and respected as such and can’t be explained away or justified by appealing to a particular narrative of our evolutionary past.

In the end, my gripe is not with vegetarians or vegans or with those people who choose to eat animal food. My beef is with people who set out to promote their beliefs by appealing to anti-intellectualism.

Dishonest people who eschew the evidence and contestability of ideas that lie at the heart of science for personal, political or financial gain.

Those self-appointed experts who set out to deliberately deceive us by using pseudoscience or plain old bullshit to construct their own version of our past.

The ConversationDarren Curnoe, ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA), UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).

And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Harry Frankfurt on honesty and truth

‘It seems even more clear to me that higher levels of civilisation must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are. The natural and social sciences, as well as the conduct of public affairs, surely cannot prosper except insofar as they carefully maintain this respect and concern…

We live at a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect. It is well known, of course, that a cavalier attitude toward truth is more or less endemic within the ranks of publicists and politicians, breeds whose exemplars characteristically luxuriate in the production of bullshit, of lies and of whatever other modes of fakery and fraudulence they are able to devise.’

Reference

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006) On Truth. Alfred A.Knopf, New York.

 

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Harry Frankfurt on recognising truth


 

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Harry Frankfurt on the incoherence of truth denial

‘In any case, even those who profess to deny the validity or the objective reality of the true-false distinction continue to maintain, without apparent embarrassment, that this denial is a position that they do truly endorse. The statement that they reject the distinction between true and false is, they insist, an unqualified true statement about their beliefs, not a false one.

This prima facie incoherence in the articulation of their doctrine makes it uncertain precisely how to construe what it is that they propose to deny. It is also enough to make us wonder just how seriously we need to take their claim that there is no objectively meaningful or worthwhile distinction to be made between what is true and what is false.’

Reference

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006) On Truth. Alfred A.Knopf, New York.

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Economic efficiency and social justice

by Tim Harding

At first sight, the concepts of economic efficiency and social justice might seem unrelated or even counterposed.  Some people intuitively feel that in the economic sense, efficiency works against fairness and therefore equality. Economic inequality just seems unfair and wrong.

In this essay, I propose to argue that the concept of economic efficiency can be used as part of a case that social justice does not require economic equality.  My case is primarily based on the works of Frankfurt; but Rawls’ Difference Principle is also of assistance.  I also intend to consider some objections to this case, and to either provide counter-arguments against them, or to suggest that the objections are not sufficiently important to outweigh the case I am putting forward.

Economic efficiency is typically defined as a Pareto optimum – a state of affairs in which it is impossible to make anybody better-off without making somebody worse-off.  Economists often describe a Pareto improvement as a change that makes some people better off without making anyone worse off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

An example of such Pareto optimality is where a farmer produces a crop that he does not consume himself, and either sells all of the produce or gives it away.  There is no wastage of the produce: somebody is better off as a result of the transaction and nobody is worse off.  Transactions of this nature are called ‘positive sum’ and the outcome is classified as economically efficient.  In contrast, an example of economic inefficiency would be where instead of selling the produce or giving it away, the farmer disposes of some or all of the produce as waste.  Depending on the amount of produce involved, the farmer may incur some costs in disposing of the waste, at least in terms of his time if not monetary costs.  So under this scenario, the farmer would be worse off and nobody would be better off.

The following diagram illustrates illustrates that Pareto efficiency can be at any point on the curve (e.g. B, D or C). Points not on this curve, such as A and X, are Pareto inefficient.

Thus there are multiple states of affairs that can be Pareto optimal or economically efficient.  So on its own, Pareto optimality will not necessarily guarantee a moral outcome; and thus economic efficiency cannot serve alone as a conception of social justice – it must be supplemented in some way (Rawls 1971, 71).  For example, if there are millions of people starving, Pareto optimality will not allow one affluent person to be worse-off (through say, increased taxation) to make others better-off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

What is needed are complementary theories that build on the concept of economic efficiency to provide a better moral basis for economic inequality.  In my view, these other theories are provided by the works of Rawls and Frankfurt.

As part of his Theory of Justice, John Rawls has proposed what he calls the Difference Principle.  This principle ‘removes the indeterminateness of the principle of efficiency by singling out a particular position from which the social and economic inequalities of the basic structure are to be judged’ (Rawls 1971, 75).[1]  The Difference Principle is that social and economic inequalities can be justified if they work as part of a scheme which benefits the worst-off members of society (Rawls 1971, 75).[2]  In this way, Rawls establishes a connection between the seemingly unrelated concepts of economic efficiency and social justice.  But more importantly, he also uncouples social justice from economic equality.  Economic inequality can be justified if it meets certain criteria and conditions related to economic efficiency.

A very simple example, illustrating the Difference Principle.
Screencast by Dr. Toby Handfield

Frankfurt takes this idea further and argues against the notion that economic equality is of significant importance.  He proposes his ‘doctrine of sufficiency’ as an alternative to the doctrine of economic egalitarianism (Frankfurt uses the terms equality and egalitarianism interchangeably):

Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.  I shall refer to this alternative to egalitarianism – namely, that what is morally important with respect to money is for everyone to have enough – as the ‘doctrine of sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 21).

Frankfurt defines ‘enough’ or sufficient in terms of meeting a subjective personal standard rather than reaching an objective limit.  This standard is when a person is content with what he has: ‘A contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life.’ This is not to say that the person would not prefer more money – it means that he lacks an active interest in seeking it by, for example, changing careers (Frankfurt 1987, 37-40).

Frankfurt argues that economic equality can be actually harmful on several grounds. One of these grounds is that measuring their financial circumstances against others distracts people from focusing on their own real needs in terms of how much is ‘enough’ for them (Frankfurt 1987, 22).  Another ground is that economic equality tends to divert attention from considerations of greater moral importance (Frankfurt 1987, 23). In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.

Frankfurt provides an example to show that under conditions of scarcity, an egalitarian distribution may be morally unacceptable.  Suppose there is only enough of a vital resource such as food or medicine to enable some but not all members of a population to survive.  An equal distribution would result in all members of the population dying, but an unequal distribution would enable some of the population to live.  In this way, an egalitarian distribution would produce a net loss of aggregate utility (Frankfurt 1987, 30).

Frankfurt thus argues that ‘it is a mistake to maintain that where some people have less than enough, no one should have more than anyone else’ (Frankfurt 1987, 31).  He argues that this conclusion leads to a logical separation between egalitarianism and sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 33).

In a more recent work, Frankfurt identifies some objections to his doctrine of sufficiency.  Firstly, the excessively affluent could be guilty of a kind of economic gluttony, resembling gobbling down more food than they need (Frankfurt 2015, 4).  My view is that this objection is based at least partly on aesthetics – conspicuous over-consumption may appear to be distasteful or unpleasant to observe.  This objection can be dismissed on the ground that aesthetics are matters of subjective personal taste rather than objective standards of social importance.  However, if this gluttony is perceived as wanton waste, it could also constitute an instance of the zero-sum fallacy; that is, the mistaken view that people can only become richer by making others poorer, or vice versa.  Viewed through the prism of this fallacy, waste by the rich can be perceived as throwing money away, resulting in less money being available for the poor.  Common textbook economic theory tells us situations like these are not necessarily zero-sum, because economic value can be created, destroyed, or altered in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders.

Secondly, highly conspicuous disparities wealth in close spatial proximity could cause a lack of social cohesion, which may be associated with frustration, envy and resentment experienced by those lower down the scale, which can damage overall social welfare in a variety of ways (Parkinson et al 2006, 109).  In extreme cases, economic inequality where people do not have ‘enough’ has led to riots or even revolutions in the past.

french-revolution-6

Paris women marching on Versailles, 1789

It is sometimes argued that cooperative relationships among members of society are beneficial and that economic inequality is not conducive to such relationships (Frankfurt 2015, 16).  My own view is that adverse consequences of such lack of social cohesion can be managed at least to some extent by government intervention (for example by the establishment of social safety nets) and that the disadvantage of economic inequality where people have more than ‘enough’ does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach.

Thirdly, wealthy people have may have a competitive advantage or economic power that gives them an unequal opportunity to accumulate more wealth and to exert more political influence than those starting with less wealth (Frankfurt 2015, 5-6).  My view is that this problem can be mitigated at least to some extent by the regulation of excessive political influence, for example via limits on political donations.  Again, this disadvantage does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach and to the extent it cannot be mitigated it is probably something we may just have to live with.

Finally, I would like to consider Elizabeth Anderson’s theory of ‘democratic equality’ based on equal respect of law-abiding citizens (Anderson 1999, 287-337) as a principled objection to the case I have outlined.  Anderson does not directly respond to the arguments of Rawls and Frankfurt that I have summarised in this essay.  Instead, she approaches the debate from a different direction and initially argues against the notion that the motive behind egalitarian policies is mere envy (Anderson 1999, 287-288).  She also argues against the idea of social justice as equality of fortune or ‘luck egalitarianism’ – compensating individuals for undeserved misfortunes in their lives such as being born poor (Anderson 1999, 289-309).  One of her main arguments is that equality of fortune interferes with citizens’ privacy and liberty (Anderson 1999, 310).  She thinks that such an approach gives individuals an incentive to deny personal responsibility for their problems.  ‘It is easier to construct a sob story recounting one’s undeserved misfortunes that it is to engage in productive work that is valued by others’ she argues (Anderson 1999, 311).

From these criticisms of the equality of fortune, Anderson moves towards a positive principle of the equal moral worth of persons, or ‘universal moral equality’ (Anderson 1999, 313).  She believes that ‘the basis for people’s claims to distributed goods is that they are equals, not inferiors, to others’ (Anderson 1999, 314); and that ‘citizenship involves functioning not only as a political agent…but participating as an equal in civil society (Anderson 1999, 317).  In other words, Anderson extends the concept of the political equality of citizens to their economic equality – she thinks that you can’t have one without the other.

In contrast, Frankfurt categorically rejects ‘the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance’ (Frankfurt 2015, 65).  He argues that ‘whenever it is morally important to strive for equality, it is always because doing so will promote some other value rather than because equality itself is morally desirable’ (Frankfurt 2015, 68).  Frankfurt believes that the widespread tendency to exaggerate the moral importance of egalitarianism is due, at least in part, to a mistaken conflation of the ideas of treating people with respect and treating them equally (Frankfurt 2015, 77).

Building on the theories of Rawls and Frankfurt that economic inequality is not necessarily unjust, I think that a case can be made that there can be even some advantages in having an inequality of wealth.  An example I would like to propose lies in the social benefits of philanthropy, where almost by definition generous donations are made to worthy causes in the arts and sciences that governments do not see sufficient short-term political advantage in funding.  These donations are often highly beneficial to medical science and treatment, especially in underdeveloped countries.  For instance, it is on the public record that the multi-billionaire Bill Gates has made a major financial contribution towards eradicating the dreadful disease of poliomyelitis from the world.

polio-bill-gates-400px-81

In conclusion, I have shown that social justice, as defined in terms of either Rawls’ Difference Principle or Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency, does not entail economic equality; and that the undesirable consequences of economic inequality can to some extent be managed by government intervention.  Where such consequences are unavoidable, their disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach, and in the case of philanthropy an inequality of wealth can even be socially beneficial.

Endnotes

[1] Rawls’ basic structure is a foundational component of his larger Theory of Justice that need not be discussed here.

[2] The application of this principle is subject to other principles of justice that take priority under specified circumstances that also need not be discussed here.

References

Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ Ethics 109: 287-337.

Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson 2006 Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1987 ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ Ethics 98: 21-43.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2015. On Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parkinson, Michael et al. 2006 State of the English Cities Volume 1. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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Harry Frankfurt ‘On Bullshit’

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Economic Inequality Is Not Immoral

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