It’s Complicated

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/01/2019 - 5:43am in

I’ve been criticized for saying that the issue behind the attempt of some students at Oxford to stop having John Finnis teach required courses* is “morally and practically complicated.” How strong a criticism is this?

The criticism is in the form of an anonymous note posted at Leiter Reports. I usually don’t respond to Professor Leiter’s remarks about me but I thought it would be useful to say a little in response to this.

One of the central tasks of philosophy, in general, is to ask questions that reveal that things are more complicated than they might appear. So I don’t take someone’s pointing out that I’m doing this to be much of a criticism at all.

When it comes to approaching matters of ethics and policy, I think our default mindset should be that they’re complicated. Even after we sort through the myriad empirical and normative considerations that could be relevant to any such matter—itself not always an easy task—we are left with assorted intersecting values and variables to take into account, and we often lack the relevant expertise on some of those items to be entitled to declare the matter simple.

What makes the Finnis matter, in particular, complicated? To help answer this, we can imagine different versions of it that would be relatively uncomplicated.

For example, if there was evidence that Finnis was discriminating against openly gay students in his seminars (to my knowledge there is no such evidence), that would make calls for his dismissal less complicated. People might disagree over whether dismissal was the appropriate solution, but few would disagree that the discriminatory treatment should be stopped.

If, instead of the complaint being about Finnis’ view that homosexual behavior is evil, it was about his view of the appropriate income tax rate, that would also make calls for his dismissal less complicated. That a professor’s view of the appropriate income tax rate differs from those of his students is no basis at all for concerns about them having to take courses with him.

The actual case is different from both of the above alternatives in ways that seem morally important. How do we get clearer on the nature of that difference?

One way is by thinking of other cases that fall between the two less complicated alternatives and see how they compare to the actual one, and so as part of that I offered up in the previous post my examples of Jewish students who have to take a course from someone who has publicly argued that it would be better if there were no Jews, and of African-American students who have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that a return to legalized slavery would be good for the U.S. You are of course welcome to develop other examples you think would be helpful in understanding the matter and the various positions one could take on it.

Let’s assume that the professors in these examples engage in no discriminatory behavior towards their students. Could the students nonetheless have some complaints about being required to take courses with them? Are any of these complaints worth taking seriously? If so, do they speak conclusively in favor of any actions? If so, are any of those actions ones that the university should take? If so, do any of those actions involve changing the employment status or responsibilities of the professor? And do our answers to these questions tell us anything helpful about the actual case?

These are not outrageous questions, by which I mean it isn’t obvious that the answers to most or all of them are “no.” I won’t attempt to answer these questions, but I will take their non-outrageousness to be evidence in favor of my view that the matter is indeed morally and practically complicated.

The vigorous disagreement voiced and difficult questions asked by several of the contributors to the 100+ comment thread on the original post also speak in favor of the matter being more complicated than it might at first seem (see comments from Joel Pust, Spencer Case, and Dale Miller, for example, among others).

For what it’s worth, my own view, which I will not present in any detail here, is that the students probably do have complaints that are worth taking seriously, but that the best way to address them does not involve changing Finnis’ employment status or responsibilities.

In general, the question “Should we X?” can be complicated by factors that we ultimately determine don’t themselves make a difference to whether to X. But we shouldn’t ignore those factors, nor should we think these factors are irrelevant to other questions in the vicinity of the original one that we may come to think are worth asking.

When potentially relevant factors are brought to my attention from people with lives relevantly different from mine, I think the epistemically responsible thing to do is take them seriously. If doing so leads me to conclude that things are more complicated than they might have at first appeared, so be it.

Springbok Editions Puzzle of “Convergence” by Jackson Pollock (detail, w/box)

*Note that it is not clear that Finnis is, in fact, teaching any required courses. If he isn’t, that’s a sufficient reason for the students to withdraw their petition, as people may have signed it only because they believed he was teaching required courses.

The post It’s Complicated appeared first on Daily Nous.

Philosopher Involved in Hoax Investigated by University

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/01/2019 - 12:18am in


Ethics, hoax, research

An institutional review board (IRB) at Portland State University has found that Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at the school, ought to have obtained IRB approval before conducting a project of submitting hoax articles to academic journals.

According to an article at Inside Higher Ed, the IRB determined that the project, which Boghossian worked on with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose (neither of whom work for universities), constituted research involving human subjects—journal editors and reviewers—and was thus subject to university policy that “all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”

The university has not yet decided on any disciplinary action for Boghossian.

You can read more about the case at IHE and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Steve Joffe, who works on research ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has a reasonable discussion of the case on Twitter in which he concludes that if the research counts as federally funded or if Portland State applies the Common Rule to all research at the school, then:

this was human subjects research, probably non-exempt (because the most relevant exemption category, for survey research, can’t be used if the research poses reputational risk, which IMO this does). If so, then research required IRB review and approval—potentially expedited, and potentially with waiver of the requirement for informed consent (research could not have been done if informed consent was required). Stepping back from the regs, this makes ethical sense too; IMO it’s good to have some peer review of an activity that might pose risks, including nonphysical risks, to others (best in that case that investigators not be judge and jury of their own case). Some might want things to be different, I understand, but to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you go to science with the regs you have, not the regs you wish you had.

I also think that if the research indeed counts as human subjects research, then Jeffrey Sachs (Acadia) is basically correct here:

1) Yes, Boghossian violated PSU’s research ethics and should be punished. 2) No, he should not be fired. In fact, the punishment should be very mild (e.g. a warning, attending a tutorial on research ethics).

We have human subjects research protections for important reasons, and while our means for such protection—institutional policies—are inherently blunt and imperfect, when the criteria for their application are met, then we should apply them.

The hoax was silly, as a research project it was poorly constructed, and it did not show what its authors smugly took it to show. But these things do not count in favor of a more severe punishment for violating research policies.

The way to show that the hoax was stupid is to argue that the hoax is stupid, and the way to show that the researchers involved are mistaken or wrongheaded is by refuting them—not by twisting procedural rules to punish them.

(Thanks to several readers for bringing this news item and various sources to my attention.)


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Wave”

The post Philosopher Involved in Hoax Investigated by University appeared first on Daily Nous.

Rising and Falling

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/12/2018 - 12:00pm in


Ethics, Europe, history


In several recent threads on this blog, we discussed (i.e., argued passionately about) the current goings on in Europe (Brexit, Greece, Italy, etc.) as signs of the impending decay and demise of the European project. I used to share this view to some extent, because I too am sometimes in the grip of a moral fallacy that haunts left-wing discourse: that things that are good, work, and things that aren’t good, don’t work. I actually think that in the bigger picture, this is true, but only in the largest temporal and spatial frames. In the medium term, lots of things that are good, are not stable enough in context to work (as in, be sustained for more than a short period of time), and lots of things that are not good, are nevertheless stable enough to last decades and even centuries.

Predicting whether, when, and how some particular set of events will cause large institutions to rise or fall cannot be done lightly or easily, and such predictions, when done in the moment, are more likely wrong than right. You should expect unexpected things to occur; there are too many variables. Some people are better at it than others, but you should take even the best track records with a grain of salt. Even two to three years ago, I would have predicted that the build-up of “bad karma” in the European system would have caused the EU to break apart by now. Even a few months ago, the rise of Euroskeptic populists in some countries suggested to me that the situation is increasingly desperate for European unity. However, over that time, and somewhat unexpectedly to me I must admit, it appears that some sort of inflection point has been reached.

The EU, as it stands now, was designed by a set of people that had different attitudes and goals over time. Therefore, it is a mixed bag, when it comes to good, not good, works, doesn’t work. A good chunk of its institutions were designed at around the peak of the neoliberal revolt against state management of the economy. In the EU, this took its expression in an approach to the economy that militated against state attempts to protect or bolster industrial employment in both public and private sectors. Because Europe does not suffer so much from the “moralized” version of libertarianism from which the US suffers (essentially, that your bank account is a virtual extension of your physical body), there is a stronger commercial regulatory apparatus developed even in the neoliberal era than what other developed “capitalist” countries tend to have. The neoliberal bits, especially the most recent ones like the Eurozone, have increasingly showed themselves to be not good and not working.

But this cannot be taken out of the context of the whole. It’s increasingly clear to me that Europe is still not that far off from the overall intended trajectory of the two generations of designers of European convergence. It is absolutely true that those who built the system had, for a number of different reasons, a deep suspicion of the public and popular sovereignty, even while they were also against outright dictatorship. I generally consider this to be overall not good and probably won’t work in the long run. (But I must note that the designers of the EU also recognized that they might need to legitimize popular sovereignty at a European level and built in provisions for systems to implement it.) However, they believed both in the necessity of European unity (in the modern world, a disunited Europe is structurally, deeply vulnerable), and the difficulty in getting a multilingual, multicultural subcontinent of fallen empires to accept the necessity of unification, so they constructed a system of what are effectively one-way traps to ensure that the cost of departure is always greater than the cost of endurance, even when the system in some matters doesn’t work. The goal is therefore for this endurance to eventually result in a crisis whose only positive-sum resolution is the Europeanization of authority.

With Italy’s effective capitulation to the Commission, and yes, with Greece’s previous compliance, and yes again, with a Brexit that is already providing the necessary object lessons, it appears that the crisis-and-trap strategy is still operating, or rather, it cannot be said to have failed at this point in time. That is, it remains that case that the strategy of making a series of systems that don’t work is working.

Considering that this game of deliberate historical manipulation has real human costs and indeed a known death toll in itself, one may well choose to designate it as not good. But, the evidence is that it still works.

So what would the decline of the European project actually look like?  Well, there are, of course, phenomena that are hard to predict directly, like, sudden environmental cataclysms. If I were forced to make a prediction, however, the political coming-apart would probably have to look like one of the following options:

  1. A situation comes to pass where it is immediately more materially beneficial to leave than to stay (this has not yet happened).
  2. One or more countries decide to leave a major institution/treaty despite the costs, and they do economically better in the relatively short run after departure. (Brexit under the Tories is not likely to be an example of this.)
  3. A consensus develops in several countries that long-term economic suffering is more desirable than staying in the EU, even if that suffering is greater than what they might have experienced inside the EU, and they sustain this consensus even after feeling that suffering.

All of this may lead you to consider projects like the European unification, designed explicitly around creating consequences that override popular will, to be not good. I have given you at least three possibilities for it to not work. So I would say, as before, that it is a mixed bag.

Political theodicy is dead. Long live political theodicy.


Multi-Million Dollar Funding for Philosopher-Led Project on Machine Intelligence

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/12/2018 - 2:19am in


Ethics, philosophy

Seth Lazar, associate professor of philosophy at Australian National University (ANU), is leading an interdisciplinary project on machine intelligence that just received a funding commitment from its university of AUD$1.65 million (US$1.17 million) per year for up to five years.

He is joined on the project by fellow ANU philosophers Colin Klein and Katie Steele, computer scientists Marcus Hutter, Sylvie ThiébauxLexing Xie, and Robert Williamson, as well as sociologist Jenny Davis, political scientist Toni Erskine, and economist Idione Meneghel.

The project, “Humanising Machine Intelligence,” Lazar says, is “aimed at designing more ethical machine intelligence.” The project website summarizes the motivation for the project:

New technologies always bear the stamp of their designers’ values. For machine intelligence, they’re deeply etched in the code. AI sees the world through the data that we provide and curate. Its choices reflect our priorities. Its unintended consequences voice our indifference. Machine intelligence cannot be morally neutral. We must choose: try to design moral machine intelligence, which sees the world fairly and chooses justly; or else build the next industrial revolution on immoral machines. To design moral machine intelligence, we must understand how our perspectives reflect power and prejudice. We must understand our priorities, and how to represent them in terms a machine can act on. And we must break new ground in machine learning and AI research.

The project will be hiring postdocs, including a few in philosophy. You can learn more about the project here.

Janusz Jurek, “Papilarnie IV”

The post Multi-Million Dollar Funding for Philosopher-Led Project on Machine Intelligence appeared first on Daily Nous.

The single biggest change to wish for next year is a bit more caring.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 21/12/2018 - 7:47pm in



I was going to blog this morning about all the things we have not collectively done this year.

You know the sort of thing. Tackling climate change; inequality in all its forms; social security reform that really works; education for the real world. The list goes on.

But you and I both know this stuff. And we both know that a government hooked on delivering economic, social and geopolitical failure for this country has ensured none of these things can be addressed. So what is the point on dwelling on the failure?

Next year is going to be tough. Maybe very tough. But this is the time to dream about what is possible.

And that’s not just tackling climate change, and all those other things. It’s about the things that matter every day.

I’ve never been a massive fan of the commercialisation of Christmas. I never will be. But when it’s about caring I do think it matters.

The single biggest change to wish for next year is a bit more caring. That would make a huge difference. I could do with that for Christmas.

It’s time for the accounting profession to tackle financial scandals and not help create them

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 19/12/2018 - 12:45am in



I gave this talk this morning at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales:

Can transparency prevent financial scandals?

Richard Murphy FCA

Professor of Practice in International Political Economy, City, University of London, Director, Tax Research LLP and sole practitioner at Fulcrum, Chartered Accountants

 Talk at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales conference ‘Information for Better Markets Conference - Financial scandals: past, present and future’

18 December 2018

I am at my core an optimist. As a result it is my belief that we can change the world for the better.

Financial scandals have always rocked our world. There is no point pretending otherwise: some who have had the opportunity to cheat have always succumbed to temptation. I am not optimist enough to think that this will change. But in that case what has to happen is that the opportunities to cheat have to be reduced.

As an accountant I have spent my life doing two things. One is reporting. The other is creating environments where risk might be mitigated.

Financial scandals arise because of a failure in a risk mitigation environment. As accountants we spend a great deal of time thinking about internal controls. We divide duties. We create checks and balances. We undertake audits, both internal and external. And throughout it all we mostly sweat the small stuff. I can almost guarantee that in most UK businesses more effort is put into preventing petty fraud than into appraising the risk of gross corporate failure as a result of a financial scandal.

If I am right we have got our priorities wrong.

My observation of this profession suggests that I am right. We as a profession, and this Institute as a professional body, have a sorry tale to tell when it comes to ensuring that the necessary controls are in place to defeat financial scandals.

We let our members and the firms that they work for operate in tax havens when the almost sole purpose of these places is the creation of opacity.

Opacity is the enemy of effective control environments, always, and without exception. No one can control what cannot be seen, and that which is unknown.

But let’s not pretend that this profession has only turned a blind eye to opacity in tax havens. It does so all too often. So often, in fact, that it’s fair to say that the failing is systemic.

This profession has supported the continual reduction in audit requirements over the last two decades.

And the matching reduction in compulsory public filling by most limited liability entities so that well over 90% of all companies in the UK now file accounts on public record that are next to meaningless.

As a result the essential control environment that public scrutiny - including by staff, suppliers and customers who would have reason to suspect that accounts are wrong - has been lost throughout most of corporate Britain.

And the situation is not much better in our larger companies.

Auditing has been reduced to a box-ticking farce by the IAASB Standards that have destroyed the concept of a true and fair view that I was trained in.

Whilst International Financial Reporting Standards deliberately set out to deny most users of accounts - from all who those trade with an entity, to regulators, to tax authorities and civil society - with any of the data that they need to appraise the risks that they face when engaging with our largest companies.

This is not the way to create a control environment. This is the way to create the environment in which financial scandals can be created.

There is a way to tackle these deficiencies in the creation of which the accounting profession has played far too large a part. That way is for this Institute and the profession as a whole to stand back and remember what we are for.

As accountants we exist to report what is happening. Openly, honestly and, quite literally, accountably.

And I would remind you that all of accountancy's professional bodies are tasked with ensuring that this happens in the public interest. They are not in existence as trade lobby, although you’d never know from the way that they behave.

As an accountant I am ashamed that my profession has forgotten these things.

And that it has seemingly made the creation of opacity and not accountability its primary task.

But we could change that. We could put accountability at the heart of accountancy again.

And so we could say that we are proud of our work and the contribution that it makes to strong and ethical reporting environments in which financial scandal, whether on tax or anything else, is harder to create.

We could demand that the full accounts of all companies be on public record.

We could demand, as a profession, that tax havens end their opacity.

We could also rewrite accounting standards from scratch to serve the interests of all the public and not just a tiny few from a very small proportion of society - remembering that this profession only exists according to the Royal Charter that this Institute holds - to serve the public interest as a whole, which we have forgotten for more years than I care to remember.

And we could remember that we - the accounting profession - and this Institute of which I have been a member for more than 35 years - are not observers and commenters on scandal, but that we, as a whole, are part of the control environment that is actively meant to stop it.

My message as an accounting practitioner is that this Institute has failed to appreciate this fact.

And that it has failed its members as a result.

As much as It has failed the public as a result.

My charge is simple. I believe that it has failed to stop preventable financial scandals.

And I suggest that only a root and branch reform of this Institute’s culture, and that of the profession as a whole, can change that.

Our job in the future is not to create the environments where cheating is more likely because opacity permits it.

Our job is instead to create the transparent accounting that mitigates risk for all involved in the entities that we serve.

And it’s time we put that first and foremost in our thoughts and acted as if this really was our mission.

I look forward to the day when I be truly proud of what my profession does. That day has not existed for many years. I hope it will again.

But as I said at the start, I am an optimist. And it takes an extreme form of optimism to have such hope for this profession at this point in time.

That said, it could start today. We heard this morning that the Competition and Markets Authority has proposed radical reforms of auditing. Radical, but still not sufficient in my view.

So I am going to propose a simple test. If this Institute wants to indicate it’s changing its spots then it should embrace these changes, as a minimum starting point for reform.

And then it should move on from there.

If it does anything less then the ICAEW is part of the problem when it comes to financial scandals, and not part of the solution.

The ball is in your court. And it’s rolling. It’s up to you at the ICAEW as to how you respond.

Dictatorship is never a matter for irony

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 17/12/2018 - 10:15pm in



I confess to not being Tim Harford’s greatest fan. But he reached new lows in the FT this weekend when saying:

The central banks got plenty right during the crisis and, given the sorry state of politics at the moment, technocracy has a certain appeal. If the UK appointed Mr Carney supreme dictator for life and bought him a nice dress uniform, he surely couldn’t do a worse job of running the country than the elected politicians currently attempting to interpret the “will of the people”.

He might dismiss this as irony.

I beg to differ. I never think suggesting dictatorship ironic.

At their best comments like this are the way in which the road to the end of democracy is paved.

At their worst they are much more cynical than that.

I am sure Tim Hartford will protest that he is a democrat to his core, and I will believe him. But in that case I will accuse him of reckless carelessness on an issue too important for that risk to be taken.

Like the vicars of old, Theresa May deserves to be ignored

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 17/12/2018 - 7:01pm in



Democracy is, with the exception of divorce, the clearest embodiment there is of the fundamental human right to change your mind.

Those saying that democracy is threatened by a change of heart clearly do not undertsand what democracy is.

They do, as a result, wish to condemn us to the consequences of a poor decision taken in haste and already regretted.

Perhaps it is no surprise that it is a vicar’s daughter, wedded to out of date ideologies, who is the principle proponent today of enforced regret and consequent misery.

Like the vicars of old, she deserves to be ignored.

The freedom to report

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/12/2018 - 5:48pm in


Blogging, Ethics

This comes from a Guardian email this morning. I am unapologetic for sharing it in full:

Journalism faces greater danger than at any point in the last decade, according to a report that finds 78 journalists were killed in 2017 while doing their job. Data from the Committee to Protect Journalists shows 2018 is likely to be no better – the number of journalists murdered as opposed to killed in war, on dangerous assignments or other incidents is on the rise. Jamal Khashoggi, killed by Saudi security forces in Istanbul in October, has been one of 31 journalists murdered so far this year. The rise of authoritarian governments and the threat of internet censorship has redoubled pressures on reporters globally, according to the human rights organisation Article 19, which found 326 journalists were imprisoned for their work during 2017, a substantial increase on the previous year. More than half of those behind bars were held in Turkey, China, and Egypt, often on charges of opposing the state.


The Tale of Two Karls

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/12/2018 - 8:59pm in

Vladimir Golstein We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”Karl Rove Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”Karl Marx History repeats itself twice. First as Marx, then as Marx Brothers; first as Karl Marx, then as Karl Rove.”Vladimir Golstein Karl Marx might have been dreaming of communism, but he analyzed capitalism judiciously and thoroughly. His insights into its mechanisms and principles, such as exploitation, alienation, or complex dialectical relationship between economics, politics, and ideology; his scrutiny of the inherent and dynamic …