May the farce be with you: legal edition

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/04/2020 - 11:37am in


Law, Religion

Well, well, well. The legal system has bungled its way to releasing a guilty man. Even if George Pell were not guilty of any acts of child molesting (as it was called during most of the time he was doing it) he’d belong in jail for his criminal disregard and wilful hostility towards the interests of the thousands of innocent children who were abused and whose lives were so devastated as people were shifted from parish to parish.

Having watched Revelation’s Episode 3 – remarkably quickly removed from the ABC’s iView Website this morning – 1it is clear on a host of similar fact evidence that Pell is in fact guilty of the crimes he was convicted of by a judge and jury.

For now, I take a small amount of comfort that the monumental incompetence of this system which has enriched the lives of so many lawyers in the last few years for putting on this dysfunctional show, has engineered a situation where a man goes to jail even though everyone has known there was a good chance he’d be found not guilty at the end of the process.2

I’m sure if I asked a lawyer why this was the case they’d come up with a good reason – or at least a reason that satisfied them. It wouldn’t satisfy me – it’s completely stupid. Perhaps you know that you haven’t really made it as a profession if you can’t do things that are utterly absurd on their face and have a large number of the trained professionals telling you that it really was for the best and that the system would be much, much worse if it didn’t do such utterly stupid things.

Certainly, economics qualifies as a profession if that’s the criterion. Professions that have to build things that work – like engineering – not so much.

Postscript: Just tell me about the money. One more thing. At the end of Episode 3 of Revelation the (I think) then most senior Catholic was in Rome for a Vatican gabfest on the crisis of child sex abuse in the Church. He seemed like a reasonable enough guy – but who knows. He’d obviously have been schooled in the PR of it all and he gave some statement to the assembled cardinals (if that’s what they were – they dressed in green silken robes and had pink skull caps on – as you do.)

The language had been amped up from the (at least in retrospect) creepy language adopted by so many apologists for the church as these revelations have been processed by the churches. I recall Pell talking about his ‘Melbourne’ model of solving this crisis talking about ‘walking with victims’ and all that stuff. (About all that can be said for that kind of stuff is that it’s better than the treatment they got in private.)

Anyway, I’m thoroughly uninterested in words from the church. I think we should have a moratorium on them. The only thing that will satisfy me are the words Mario Draghi used to save the Euro – at least for a time. “Whatever it takes”. I want to hear senior Catholics say this:

Enough with the words.  I am ashamed to say that my church has utterly debased them since this crisis was dragged into the light – with the Catholic Church relentlessly resisting at every turn. ‘By their fruit ye shall know them’. Accordingly, I say to you now that my Church is not serious if it does not immediately set about unwinding the labyrinth of the legal structures it has put in place to deny those who have a rightful prior claim on the wealth of the church – the victims of my church’s crimes.

Post-postscript: The Pope seems pretty pleased he’s got his boy off – all very reminiscent of Jesus really when you think about it.

  1. It reads “In response to the High Court’s decision regarding Cardinal George Pell, the ABC has temporarily removed episode three of Revelation from its platforms while updating its content”.
  2. The only case for this would be if Pell was a chance to abscond, but measures can be taken to render the chances of that negligible.

When Going to Church Is Immoral

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/04/2020 - 2:06am in



Some pastors are defying government restrictions and holding worship gatherings. Some governors are allowing this. What are we to make of this, morally speaking? 

Roger Scruton, Roger Crisp, Pollution, and Modernity in Moral Philosophy (I)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/04/2020 - 11:31pm in

When considering Greek tragedy we observe two striking facts: first, that the tragic fault is seen as a pollution, by which others might be contaminated should it not be purged or purified; second, that the situations portrayed arouse the deepest feelings in us, without our really knowing why. Those facts did not escape the notice of Freud, of course, and he gave a contentious explanation of them. In the Greek tragedy we witness the residue of an older form of moral thinking, an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice. This older form of thinking, which anthropologists, following Mary Douglas, have called the “ethic of pollution and taboo,” sees moral faults as arising as much by contagion as by deed. It emphasizes purity and purification in sexual and familial relations; and it punishes people not by holding them liable for their actions and opening a path to contrition and forgiveness but by casting them out from the community and readmitting them only if some act of purification has changed their status. One might say that the tragic theater takes us into the hunter-gatherer cave, where things long hidden in darkness are briefly revealed, as though by a flash of lightning. The play is an exorcism, arousing fearful spirits, making them briefly visible, and then expelling them in a mystic act of purification. This revisiting of ancient terrors is a part of overcoming them, and it has its equivalent in our own tragic art, as well as our religious rituals.--Roger Scruton (2017) On Human Nature, Chapter 3, 87-88.

In my blogging, I have been unrelentingly critical of Scruton qua public philosopher. But I had never engaged with any of his books, so I figured a Pandemic would be as good a time as any to survey them independently. But a certain weariness made me opt for the shortest one I could find in my local bookshop. On Human Nature offers plenty of grounds of more criticism (not least its insidious way -- because allowing plausible deniability -- of sneaking in homophobia on p. 119), but today's post will bracket polemics. Rather, I want to use Scruton as a kind of useful exemplar of a philosophical mindset that presupposes successful moral progress associated with modernity. I use him because (i) in many ways he is a critic of modernity -- there is a reason conservatives of various stripes eulogized him so favorably --, and (ii) he is willing to use the language of pollution in his own theorizing (see, especially, chapter 4 of On Human Nature). But my diagnosis of Scruton also applies in crucial ways to philosophers that, at first blush, share very little in common with him (such as Roger Crisp). If you are the kind of philosopher whose response to experiencing Oedipus Rex is, 'I don't get the fuss, he was innocent,' I am probably also talking of you. 

Scruton treats examples of the 'ethic of pollution' even when displayed on the for us ancient, Athenian stage as a kind of prehistoric relic, "an archaeological stratum beneath the realm of personal choice." If I were a scholar of Scruton, I would be tempted to explore how Nietzschean Scruton's reading here is, with a society characterized by  law-governed, Apollonian sensibilities, being made to confront and then jointly excise a collective unconscious rooted in our breeding evolutionary history.

I am going to leave that aside. I  stipulate, by contrast, that modernity (and its cognates) itself presupposes a contrast between (a) the extended present, which is characterized by disenchantment and law-governed practices of moral accountability based on choice and (b) a distant past that involves ethic/practices centered on purity/pollution by way of contagion; (c) in which (a) has largely overcome or displaced (b). My account of modernity decouples it from a particular epoch although often people who understand themselves in light of a conception of modernity often think of it as having occurred once.  

In the sense that I am using 'modernity' here, Scruton is unabashedly modern, although unlike most moderns his views are compatible with the thought that different historical epochs instantiate modernity and that modernity may need or require elements of the pre-moderns to be worth endorsing. The more frequent position is that signs of pre-modern thought are disqualifying or grounds of debunking. Here's Roger Crisp commenting (also in 2017) on the piacular form of agent regret:

Could it really be that the nature of our current sentiments depends on the content of moralities far in the past? In fact, it is hard to see how it could not. Patterns of sentiment once established are, as Williams himself notes, hard, perhaps impossible, to uproot, and this certainly appears to have been the case with those in the western tradition involving pollution. As Mary Douglas pointed out long ago, St Paul’s attempt to characterize the Mosaic law as part of the  ‘old dispensation’ and similar moves within the early Church were unable to override the view, strongly supported by sentiment, that bodily states were relevant to ritual. Douglas focuses in particular on the idea of pollution by blood, noting that even the current Roman ritual for purification of a mother probably derives from the kind of Judaic practice outlined above (Douglas 2002, pp. 75–6).
   [Adam] Smith’s view, then, is that the apologies and assistance offered to the family of a person one has unintentionally and non-negligently killed are the modern analogue of an animal sacrifice....The special relation in question [of agent-regret] is most plausibly seen as involving a secularized version of the notion of ritual uncleanliness and pollution. And if we accept this account of the origin of our sense of the piacular in such cases, I take it that many would see it as providing the basis for a debunking argument credible enough at least to put the onus of justification on the defenders of the result-sensitive sentiments in these cases. Roger Crisp, (2017) "Moral Luck and Equality of Moral Opportunity," Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, Volume 91, p. 13

I happen to disagree with Crisp's analysis of moral luck (he cites one of my papers somewhat dismissively in a note). And, full disclosure, this post is in some sense motivated by a desire to give a kind of counter-diagnosis to his attempt to burden shift. Here I just want to call attention to the way characteristic features of modernity are on display (leaving aside the grip of Mary Douglas and Bernard Williams on Scruton and Crisp). But rather than treating the ethic of pollution as shaped by earlier stage of civilization (hunter-gathering) as Scruton does, it is now treated as a remnant of the Mosaic law. To put this with the aim of being clever: in Crisp's hands, St. Paul and the early Church try to be modern but fail, whereas the "many" today are confident in their modernity.

Now, people who exhibit modernity in the way I have diagnosed always take its existence for granted, as something obvious. They never treat it as a hypothesis worth establishing. (By contrast, I think modernity in this sense is a kind of ideology.) That's peculiar because it is possible that the ethics of pollution/purity track genuine moral phenomena or features of moral phenomenology.  

As an aside, and to signal what I am claiming, from a metaphysical point of view moral pollution/purity is less weird than, say, a personal god or  property dualism, and on par with (more controversially) the existence of persons and human rights. While, perhaps, a personal god has not survived modernity, the others have flourished just fine. Moral pollution/purity track genuine relations between people and their effects (and the causes on people) and the way people relate to the norms of the community they inhabit. 

The claim of the previous paragraph needs to be established by argument. That's for another time. But modernity would be wrong (or an ideology) if the elimination of purity/pollution means not tracking real relations. And then if modernity were true, it would be impoverished. 

That modernity, while true, is impoverished is, in fact, Scruton's position (but not Crisp's). He wants to claim that inter alia "piety, pollution, and the sacred are necessary to us." He goes on to say, "Without transgressing the ontological assumptions of liberal contractarianism, I want to restore the complete picture of the embodied moral agent, as we know this from the literature, art, and religion of our civilization." (133; one wonders who is included in 'our' here.)

Now, this post is quite long already. So, let me take stock. One can reject modernity either by denying (a), (b) or (c). Or one can show that modernity has a function in practice and thought that is, in a sense, not truth conducive (because, say, being ideological). So, in a series of pandemic-era posts, I am going to argue that we, who are reminded of the significance of contagion,  may never be modern. 


6 post-Corona Institutional questions

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/03/2020 - 11:34pm in

The mass hysteria of the corona crisis is raging, with the resulting self-isolation of whole economies and populations. The loss seems greater with every new forecast on the economic collapse than I initially thought, and the benefit of imprisoning and terrorizing the population smaller than I initially thought, leading courageous little Sweden to forego these options. High-level media and calm commentators are waking up to the longer-term implications, though the population is still too overcome by fear.

I want to share 6 areas where we should think of international institutional reform to prevent another hysteria like the one we are going through now. I don’t want to presume any answers but simply want to hear your thoughts and suggestions, so am merely laying out the challenges.

They are: i) How to diminish the normality of apocalyptic thinking, ii) How to read China better, iii) How to prevent international contagion of panic through social and regular media better, iv) How to reduce the fragility of international supply chains, v) How to foster better cooperation between countries in the EU, and vi) How to regain our lost freedom and reason.

Over the fold I explain them in more detail.


  1. The cult of the apocalypse. This crisis laid bare that large parts of the population and the scientific community, not just epidemiologists, have really bought into some notion of extreme emergencies for which a totalitarian response is needed. Via petitions and the media have these people loudly called for draconian measures, based on little evidence that this would work or no evidence that it would do more good than bad. The world has up till now shrugged its shoulders over the various doom scenarios dreamed up by scientists, including “extinction due to climate change”, “killer asteroids”, “nuclear devastation”, “run-away robots”, and a whole host of other scenarios you might recognise from disaster movies. This time the population went along with one such story, leading to devastating losses as the ‘cure’ turned out to be far more deadly and destructive than ‘the problem’. How do we reduce the prevalence and growth of these doomsday cults?
  2. Understanding China. The Chinese government showed the world the example of how to be totalitarian about a disease, and their example proved infectious. Understanding in the West as to why the Chinese did this was extremely limited, but we looked up to them anyway and several governments simply followed their example. We need to learn how China truly operates and stop imagining they are like us. The Chinese have a long history of disastrous totalitarian projects, like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, and we should learn why they do this, in order to avoid following their example, not copy them.
  3. Contagion of panics via social media and the regular media. This was first and foremost the biggest mass hysteria event in history, fed by a connected media. Even in India, which is far too warm for this virus to do much damage and where there are hence almost no recorded cases, the population has become scared enough to loudly call for draconian measures, leading to the madness of locking down hundreds of millions of extremely poor people who have no savings and no income to buy food. We need to think hard about how to make contagion of these panics harder and slower, not just for pandemics but also the many other global fears (financial, military, ethnic, religious). This will require thinking about the architecture of media, the internet, mobile telephony, etc. It is not easy to see what can be done.
  4. The fragility of international supply chains. The huge recessions of 1929 in the West, and 1990 in Eastern Europe taught us that broken supply chains are very hard to rebuild in a hurry. Companies and industries make very particular investments that form a link, and if some of the pieces in the chain break, the whole chain cannot function, disbands, and very quickly loses the knowledge to re-form as parts go their separate ways[1]. We should think of what we could do to make the supply chains less fragile to disruption: how do we build more slack into the system?
  5. International cooperation. As Harari pointed out in the Financial Times, international cooperation has broken down during this crisis. Even in the EU, countries went their own way, not caring about the disruption to partners of their own actions. This is also what happened in 1929 and in Eastern Europe in 1990, to the loss of all. We have learned again that only nation states remain cohesive and take collective decisions. What to do about it?
  6. How to regain respect for freedom, privacy, own reason, the fallability of expert advice, etc.? This hysteria has cost the West, which is the audience we on this blog overwhelmingly belong to, much of the best we had to offer the world. For the sake of fear have we loudly demanded totalitarianism, invasive top-down monitoring, top-down rules on who is important and who should do what, and adopted the fantasies of experts who had no more idea about the balance of the effects of what they proposed than anyone else. How to regain and more stringently hold on to our ideals and our reason?

I have preliminary suggestions on these but want to hear your thoughts. Also importantly, what other international institutional challenges do you see needing to be addressed once this hysteria passes and the West wakes up to the loss it has inflicted on itself?

[1Because this stuff is too hard to put in an easy macro-model (though you can do it in micro models, see here), mainstream economics hasnt managed to incorporate these lessons into its canon and has thus once again missed the importance of this when the crisis hit.]

On Scorekeeping in Professional Philosophy, and Other Credit Economies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 4:09am in

Last week, two events occurred that are emblematic of the repeated structural gaslighting of disabled philosophers in which nondisabled philosophers engage and the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability from the profession that almost all philosophers tacitly enforce and reward. One of these events took place in comments on the Daily Nous blog, involving philosophers who seem largely uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society more broadly. The other event was the consequence of an event that I have written about before, namely, the recruitment for a position in Bioethics and Disability Studies in the philosophy department at Georgetown.

In the first case, the philosophers in question depoliticized and individualized a politically saturated situation, namely, the unacknowledged use of the insights of disabled philosophers of disability by nondisabled philosophers, appealing to dismissive remarks about political correctness and unexamined views about personal intentions in order to do so. In the second case, the position was awarded to a nondisabled philosopher even though numerous disabled philosophers of disability applied for the job, many of whom have much more knowledge about and experience of ableism and disability than the nondisabled philosopher who got hired.

Both events became part of the public discourse that circulated in philosophy on social media last week. Yet no nondisabled philosopher came forward to challenge the events and draw attention to the ways in which they reinforced the asymmetries of power that currently condition relations between disabled and nondisabled philosophers. ...

Indeed, my disabled philosopher colleagues and I feel betrayed once again.... betrayed by the philosophical community that continues to exploit and distort disabled people’s experiences and wisdom while denying us the authority and professional acknowledgement of that knowledge..--Shelley Tremain @Biopolitical Philosophy [HT Dailynous]

A tacit assumption, even existential commitment, I have long had is that professional philosophy  is characterized by reasonably accurate scorekeeping. We are a relatively small discipline, with even smaller sub-fields, that generally have overlapping workshops/conferences and referee poules. If anything, I tend to worry that professional philosophy is too clubby. So, a few years ago I was stunned to discover material in a handbook chapter that went over the very same correspondence (between A & B) that I had covered in a high profile journal in the field a few years before without mentioning. What made the case neat was that the other scholar worked with the archived papers of B, whereas I had worked with A. (Turns out A & B both kept copies of their own letters. Oh the vanity of academics!)

Because I was on friendly terms with the other scholar (cf. clubbiness), I wrote the other scholar that I was disappointed my piece was not cited. That passive aggressive remark was left unanswered. As the weeks past, I did wonder whether I should write the editor of the handbook and kvetch. But because I had missed deadline after deadline for that very same handbook -- recall I said things are a bit clubby in philosophy -- and then my hasty draft  (on a different topic than the correspondence between A&B) was rejected as inadequate (not entirely unfairly), I decided that I would probably regret pursuing this further. I console myself with the thought that the handbook paper is cited only by its author so far. Undoubtedly, I would be greatly pleased if a book-reviewer pointed out the author's oversight some day.

I was surprised the episode, and in particular the lack of acknowledgment after I noted the omission, stung me so badly; and not for the first time I reflected on the fragility of my professional ego. When Tremain's piece (quoted above) reminded me of my own episode, I tried reading Callard's famous essay ("Is Plagiarism all wrong?") as therapy; but that failed because her first key move, "many of us are prepared to debate the fine points of questions such as “Under what circumstances it is okay to torture someone?”, but only against a background of unquestioned agreement that representing other peoples’ ideas or phrasings as your own is, always and forever, evil" reminded me a bit of one my own thoughts,: "academics tend to treat sins against the profession/discipline far worse than society treats a whole range of awful crimes." When I went back to my essay to make this very point, I was confronted with the fact that the thought I happily attributed to myself wasn't even original with me (I cite a "journalist" as a source).

It is by no means original to recognize that the credit economy of philosophy, and any of the intellectual disciplines, functions, in addition to multiple epistemic roles, as a mechanism to facilitate career advancement and the distribution of jobs, prestige, and even research programs. (Go read Liam Kofi Bright and his co-authors.) And given the immense (and narrow) prestige hierarchy of philosophy, it is predictable that patterns of citation exclusion will impact the most vulnerable colleagues most along many dimensions.

So, there is really no ground for optimism in thinking that the profession, or those like ours, is especially good at scorekeeping for those who may need such accuracy most. (That's in fact compatible with the idea that the scorekeeping is reasonably decent for epistemic purposes.) If the victims of such patterns of exclusion are denied standing to claim their due, there is really no reason to expect change for the better. It is not my task to judge all the particular accusations in Tremain's piece (if only because she is critical of some of my friends as she has been critical of me in the past); but I hope this post helps amplify the structural inequities she diagnoses. 

I have long been pleased by the following thought from The Quran: "Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (13:11) I don't think this passage is an instance of victim-blaming (even if it can be abused in that fashion). Rather, it diagnoses that in  bad circumstances collective action (by a people) is needed. As many reformers have noted, we can't eliminate structural injustice merely by doing better individually. If it is too much to expect individuals to do better at scorekeeping given the incentive structure of the status quo, then it is long overdue we collectively change how we organize such scorekeeping or the rules of the game. I am open to suggestions.



Telegraph Journo Embarrassed by Sargon and Robinson’s Free Speech Organisation

As we know, embarrassing the Tories is good and righteous work. So Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, the man who broke UKIP, deserves especial congratulations for making the Tories uncomfortable over the whole question of free speech. He didn’t do it intentionally. It’s just that they found the similarities between Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and a rival right-wing organisation founded by Sargon and the islamophobic thug Tommy Robinson far too close for comfort.

Last month the Spectator’s vile Toby Young announced that he was founding the Free Speech Union along with a load of other rightists. This was going to defend those expressing controversial opinions from being silenced and kicked out of their jobs. The Heil on Sunday quoted Tobes as saying

“People who become the target of ‘Twitter storms’ after making controversial remarks will be defended by a new body called the Free Speech Union. The organisation will ‘stand up for the rights of its members to tell the truth in all circumstances’. The union has been set up by the journalist Toby Young in response to police investigations into a string of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ triggered by outspoken comments”.

“If someone at work writes to your boss to complain about something you’ve said, we’ll write to them, too, and explain the importance of intellectual tolerance and viewpoint diversity. If self-righteous social-media bullies pick on you, we’ll return the fire. If someone launches an online petition calling for you to be sacked, we’ll launch a counter-petition. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders must band together too.”

The organisation has a Latin motto, which runs something like ‘Audi altri partem’, which I think means ‘Hear the other side.’

However, it’s not a union, but an incorporated, whose five directors are all spokesmen for the right. They include Young himself, Prof Nigel Biggar, who defends colonialism, Douglas Murray, who has islamophobic opinions, and Radomir Tylecote, who was suspended from the Treasury for writing a book against the EU. And their record of defending their opponents’ right to express their opinions is actually very poor. Zelo Street in their article about the wretched union quoted Paul Bernal, who tweeted

“As Toby Young should know, your commitment to free speech isn’t shown by how well you defend those whose speech you agree with, but how you defend those whose speech you don’t. When his ‘free speech union’ talks about the excesses of the Prevent programme, then see”.

The Street himself commented that it was just free speech for the right, and a way for Tobes and co. to complain about how unfair the world is.

Unfortunately for Tobes’ outfit, Sargon and Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the EDL, have launched their own right-wing free speech organisation, the Hearts of Oak Alliance. And the similarities between the two concerned Tory feminist academic Zoe Strimpel to write a piece for the Torygraph on the first of this month, March 2020, complaining about this fact. Strimpel’s a Cambridge graduate with an M. Phil in gender studies. She’s the author of a series of book on men’s psychology, feminism, dating and romance. She began her article with the statement that her circle of friends has taken on a left-wing hue. It includes many Labour supporters, against whom she has to defend capitalism and Zionism. Well, at least she said ‘Zionism’, rather than accuse them once again of anti-Semitism. She’s upset by them chuckling off her fears about the erosion of free speech and thought, which, she claims, is under attack by a visible machinery of censorship in offices, the cops, universities, arts and online. She cites approvingly a report by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, which advised universities to guard against being the voice of critics of those, who despise the supporter of the traditional values of patriotism, family, faith and local traditions. They have to be willing to represent and not sneer at those, who feel justifiable pride in British history, culture and traditions.

However, she was worried whether it was possible to defend free speech, without sullying the cause with too many real thugs, who wanted to get as close as possible to inciting actual violence under the guise of expressing their democratic rights. Was it possible to challenge the climate of intimidation, snide snitching, and mendacious and manipulative accusations of hate-mongering, racism and making people feel ‘unsafe’, without being a magnet for the alt-right? She agreed to become a member of the advisory board, but has her reservations. She’s uncomfortable about Sargon’s and Robinson’s organisations, because of Sargon’s own anti-feminist, misogynistic views. Sargon was, she declared, far right, a thug, who called feminism ‘a first world female supremacy movement’, and ‘all kinds of blokeish’. He’s also the man responsible for sending that Tweet to Labour MP Jess Philips, telling her that he ‘wouldn’t even rape her’.

She concluded her article by stating that the aims of Tobes’ outfit were perfectly legitimate and free speech is under threat. But it was ‘just a shame that in defending those who ought to speak freely, one has to defend those, who – in an ideal world – wouldn’t have anything to say.’

Sargon was naturally upset at this assault on his character. He therefore posted a piece up on his YouTube channel, Akkad Daily, on the 2nd of March defending himself from her attack. He didn’t deny he was anti-feminist, and defended his own comments on this. But he roundly denied being a thug and far right. He was, he repeated, a Lockean classical liberal, and believed in precisely the same values as those Policy Exchange’s report claimed were under attack.

Sargon is indeed far right. He’s a libertarian, who would like everything privatised and the end of the welfare state. He’s against the European Union and immigration, and is bitterly critical of feminism and affirmative action for women and ethnic minorities. And yes, he is an islamophobe like Robinson. But in very many ways he and Robinson are absolutely no different from Young and his crew. Young is also far right. He’s a right-wing Tory, who attended eugenics conferences whose members and speakers were real Nazis and anti-Semites. And Young also is all kinds of blokeish as well. He’s posted a number of tweets expressing his obsession with women’s breasts. Way back in the ’90s, he also wrote a piece for the men’s magazine, GQ, about how he once dressed up in drag in order to pose as a woman, because he wanted to snog lesbians in gay clubs.

And it’s not just the people in the Free Speech Union, who have no real interest in free speech. Neither does Conservatism or Zionism. Thatcher tried to pass legislation making it illegal for universities to employ Marxists. A week or so ago, Turning Point UK announced that it was launching a British version of its parent organisation’s Professor Watch, a blacklist of university lecturers, who dared to express or teach left-wing views. And anti-Zionist and Israel-critical bloggers, like Tony Greenstein and Martin Odoni have described how Israel’s super-patriotic supporters, like Jonathan Hoffman, don’t want to permit free debate about Israel and its barbarous treatment of the Palestinians. Rather, they turn up at pro-Palestinian meetings with the intention of heckling, shouting down and otherwise disrupting the proceedings. They also seek to use the law to suppress criticism and factual reporting of Israeli atrocities as anti-Semitism.

Now there are opponents of free speech on the left. But Stimpel, as a good Tory, doesn’t want to recognise that it exists on the right. She’s embarrassed that supporting right-wing speech also means supporting extreme right-wing figures like Sargon and Robinson. But she doesn’t recognise, because she can’t afford to, that Sargon and Robinson aren’t actually much different from Toby Young, Douglas Murray, Radomir Tylecote, Nigel Biggar and the rest. In fact, there’s little difference between the two groups in fundamental attitudes.

It’s just that Sargon’s a little more extreme and doesn’t have a column in a major right-wing newspaper or magazine.

On Wars of Choice, Las Casas, Transatlantic federations, and Reparations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/03/2020 - 11:19pm in

Now the fact that one must refrain from war, and even tolerate the death of a few innocent persons, is proved by arguments and many authorities.
The first argument is this: According to the rule of right reason when we are confronted by two choices that are evil both as to moral guilt and punishment and we cannot avoid both of them, we ought t0 choose the lesser evil. For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of the lesser evil has the quality of a good. This is what the Philosopher  teaches. Now the death of a small number of innocent persons is a lesser evil than the eternal damnation of countless numbers of persons killed in the fury of war.

Again, the death of the innocent is better or less evil than the complete destruction of entire kingdoms, cities. and strongholds. For not all of them eat the flesh of the innocent but only the rulers or priests, who do the sacrificing, whereas war brings the destruction of countless innocent persons who do not deserve any such thing. Therefore if those evils cannot be removed in any other way than by waging war, one must refrain from it and evils of this kind must be tolerated.
Furthermore, it is incomparably less disastrous that a few innocent persons die than that Christ's holy name be blasphemed by unbelievers and that the Christian religion be brought into ill repute and be hated by those peoples and by others to whom word of this flies, when they hear how many women, children, and aged people of their nation have been killed by the Christians without cause, as will unavoidably happen, and indeed has happened, in the fury of war. What, I ask, will be the result, if not a perpetual barrier to their salvation, so that there will be no further hope for their conversion? Therefore when there is a question of war over a cause of this kind it is better to let a few innocent persons be oppressed or suffer an unjust death. In fact it would be a very great sin, and against the natural, to wage war on these unbelievers for this reason. This is proved in the following way.
According to right reason, and therefore the natural law, it is evident that in every case and in every matter that concerns two evils, especially those involving moral guilt, one must choose that which is less harmful or is thought to be less harmful. Therefore to seek to free innocent persons in the case proposed, within their territories, as has been proposed, would be against the natural la,v and a sin, which, although not mortal, is very serious indeed. This is evident because the greater the damage sin inflicts the more serious it is, according to St. Thomas. And this is true even if that damage is not intended or foreseen, since everything that necessarily follows upon a sin belongs in some way to the very species of the sin. From such a war a countless number of innocent persons of both sexes and all ages will unavoidably perish, and the other evils that have been mentioned will necessarily follow upon that war. Therefore anyone who would try to free those who suffer evils of this type by means of war would commit a very serious mortal sin. ---Las Casas (1550-1552) In Defense of the Indians, chapter 28, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 191-2. 

During the The Valladolid debate (1550–1551), Sepúlveda, the spokesperson for Spanish landlords in the Americas, articulated (recall) the case for humanitarian intervention on behalf of natives exploited by 'savage' indigenous practices. In particular, Sepúlveda called attention to the way vulnerable natives may be subject to human sacrifice and cannibalism. He, thereby, sketched their existence in terms of a proto-Hobbesian state of nature. At bottom his argument rests on two thoughts: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. The benefits include not just protection from local oppression, but also access to Christian conversion. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may justifiably invite humanitarian intervention.

There is little doubt that Sepúlveda's argument is offered in bad faith. But, as Las Casas recognizes, that is not sufficient to undermine it. On the question of sacrifice and cannibalism, Las Casas' strategy is not to deny its existence. But, first, he minimizes it frequency. Second, he claims that in many cases what looks like sacrifice is merely a legally sanctioned death sentence (and so unobjectionable). Third, that leaves a small number of victims from practices that serve a religious or (non-juridical) political function in indigenous societies. The question is, then, do these victims justify humanitarian intervention? And this question is pursued both as a contribution to just war theory (in particular, jus ad bellum) as well as a contribution to the borders of the Church and the role of the emperor in imposing these.

Because the natives never posed any threat to the Spanish, and no Christians were present in the Americas, the issue becomes  really a question about to what degree one can choose war under the pretext or in the service of humanitarian intervention. As is clear from the first paragraphs of the quoted passage above, Las Casas' answer is an unambiguous rejection of war under such circumstances. For, in war many  innocents will die necessarily. Las Casas adds many gruesome descriptions of how likely it is that in the fog of war enemy combatants and innocent bystanders are confused (and the latter harmed or killed) and that war always provides cover for other harms (including looting, plunder, rape, etc.). 

In these cases the dead innocent bystanders are harmed twice over: they get killed and they have no chance to be converted (and so receive eternal salvation, etc.). Moreover, while he does not emphasize this as much, the soldiers are put in great temptation to sin and fall into eternal damnation. So, the cost of war of choice in the service of humanitarian intervention is material and spiritual. Even if one does not share Las Casas' theological commitments, it is not difficult to articulate the spiritual costs in more psychological/social terms (PTSDs, broken social ties, etc.) that due justice to a more secular metaphysics.

In addition, and Las Casas is not shy about this point, if the ultimate point is voluntary conversion then exposing would be converted to great risks, even enormous harms, is self-undermining: "war is not a suitable means for spreading Christ's glory and the truth of the gospel, but rather for making the Christian name hateful and detestable for those who suffer the disasters of war." (355) As Las Casas repeatedly notes, the natural response to Spanish conquest and plunder is loathing of Spanish religion. So, while the particular details of the consequences of wars of choice may not be explicitly intended, they are foreseeable in a certain generic (one may be tempted to say statistical) way as belonging to a class of foreseeable "unavoidable" harms (even if the particular detail is not foreseen). Among the harms are epidemic illnesses, as Las Casas recognized.*  

Las Casas' argument presupposes here (and he argues it throughout the book) that because the indigenous are unbelievers  the Church has no prior dominion over them. In fact, because he treats the indigenous as self-governing polities with natural right to self-defense (“Every nation, no matter how barbaric, has the right to defend itself against a more civilized one that wants to conquer it and take away its freedom,” (355)), they also have a natural right to their own religious practices (which he assures his reader are theistic in practice).  In virtue of some such comments, Las Casas comes very close to finding the whole Spanish presence in the Americas illegal. 

He draws back from this conclusion for two reasons, one theological and one political (intimately connected). The political reason is that he needs the power of the emperor to subdue the Spanish landlords (and reform their abuses) and control the conquistadors. But the emperor and his court rely on income from the Americas; the emperor is in a zero-sum competition with other European powers, and the emperor has opportunity to extend his dominion and power by incorporating the American colonies in a pacific, imperial project in which the emperor becomes a protector of self-governing natives against their oppressors in the same way he is a protector of burghers against feudal landlords (see, e.g., the New Laws of Charles V). In addition, and this is connected to the theological reason, the emperor can create conditions for possibility of peaceful missions to convert of the indigenous. This is also the interest of the Church to hold on to colonial enterprise (and is explicitly present in the various papal degrees.)

Before I conclude, and as an aside, it is worth emphasizing that Las Casas develops here the foundations for the pacific federations based on shared and ever closer, converging values and shared interests familiar from the history of liberalism (recall here; and neo-Liberalism  (recall hereherehere)). And this also suggests that we can tell an alternative to Foucault's story. Recall that for Foucault 'Europe' was discovered when the Westphalian, non-zero sum system presupposed a zero-sum extra-European relationship that extracts wealth from would be enemies (in what we may call the Global South). On this view a zone of open-ended progress requires the domination of the backward global. Prior to the development of this system, there were opportunities for a more mutualistic relationships with the Global South.+  

The very possibility of a more mutualist, equitable approach founders on the limitations of imperial state capacity and the power inequality between the natives and Spanish. The Imperial state is, even when willing,** incapable of genuinely controlling the Spanish landlords from afar when their interests align against it. This means that Las Casas' own proposal --  "what has been taken unjustly" must be "restored" (362) -- is doomed to failure. This despite the fact that Las Casas' proposal is itself a compromise with political reality. I put it like that because his arguments entail a more radical conclusion, not just restoration but also, "reparation for injuries." (4)++


*The point is more explicit in Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (1516), where he advocates building hospitals for the locals.

+I do not want to overstate this. Clearly, even the most humane-minded Europeans assumed the superiority of their religion (even if they were critical of their civilization). 

**It clearly seems willing when the influence of non-Spanish (low-countries) courtiers is at its peak at the Court of Emperor V. These clearly recognize that the Spanish nobility is developing a new source of power and income in the Americas.

++This is not anachronism because the point is made explicit  by a fifteenth century editor of Las Casas, Bartolome de la Vega in the preface he attached to the Defense.

Losing Reality: Can We Get the Truth Back?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/03/2020 - 3:11pm in

In the Trump era we find ourselves engulfed in two realities. Bill Moyers and Robert Jay Lifton in conversation. Continue reading

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Anti-Trans Discrimination in Philosophy of Religion: An Accusation & Possible Progress (Updated)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/03/2020 - 11:26pm in

A professor of philosophy says she was told by the organizer of a conference on theology and philosophy of religion that he would not consider papers from her for conferences like that because she is transgender.

[Sadie Benning, “Mask”]

Sophie Grace Chappell of Open University says of Andrew Pinsent, a member of the theology faculty at Oxford University:

Dr Pinsent confirmed to me in person a while back that he would not consider papers from me for conference[s] like this because I am transgender.

Chappell made her remarks on PHILOS-L, a large philosophy listserv, in response to a call for papers posted by Pinsent last Wednesday for an upcoming conference on natural theology at Oxford he is organizing.

You can view her post here.

In an email, Dr. Chappell said the aforementioned exchange with Dr. Pinsent took place in 2017.

Dr. Pinsent denies the accusation. In an email, he wrote that “is not only false but literally and demonstrably false.” As evidence against him saying such a thing, he cites a 2015 email to Dr. Chappell in which he tells her she may “be interested in our summer conference in Oxford, which we shall be advertising shortly.”

On the webpage for the conference he is organizing, Dr. Pinsent added this note about Dr. Chappell’s accusation:

I state here that this claim is completely false and that the conference is open to anyone. To extend an olive branch, I have written to Prof. Chappell offering to reserve a place at the conference for her. Given the seriousness of this public defamation, against me and the University of Oxford, we are, however, also following up this matter with PHILOS-L and taking legal advice.

Via email, Dr. Chappell said that though she called out Dr. Pinsent publicly, they used to be friends and “there is much about him that I like and respect.” She also expressed hope for “a positive outcome from all this… not a destructive one.” Dr. Pinsent’s statement that the conference is “open to anyone” and his inviting Dr. Chappell to it seem like positive developments—the implicit threat of a lawsuit not so much. Dr. Chappell hasn’t said whether she is accepting the invitation.

The publicity of the case is perhaps both a sign of progress and a potential cause of it. That Dr. Chappell felt that it was worth making this accusation in public is an indication of confidence that enough others in the profession would find anti-trans discrimination problematic enough to do something about it. It wasn’t always so. Looking forward, others who are organizing events in philosophy of religion and theology may be motivated to take steps to not be subject to similar accusations.

(Readers may be interested in Dr. Chappell’s “frankly autobiographical” reflections on “transgender in theory and practice.”)

I asked one of the conference’s scheduled keynote speakers, Helen De Cruz (Saint Louis University), if Dr. Chappell’s accusation and Dr. Pinsent’s reaction to it were going to have any affect on her plans to attend the conference. I reproduce her response, in full, below.

I have been asked to provide a comment in light of a recent situation that arose about the conference Natural Theology in the 21th Century, where I am one of the keynote speakers.

The space of philosophy of religion is a difficult one to navigate. Whereas philosophy is quite liberal, philosophy of religion reflects a greater diversity of political views, including on gender issues. I find it fascinating to work in this space, and I greatly value conversations with people across the political spectrum.

This greater political diversity also means though that philosophy of religion is less welcoming to transgender and other LGBTQ+ people than many other philosophy fields are. This is regrettable and unfortunate.  As I’ve argued (in a forthcoming paper), we need to seek epistemic friction, and this includes challenging prevailing religious orthodoxies on gender and sexuality (I think that there is also a place for these views to be discussed, but I know other people disagree with me on this).

In situations like the one I am commenting on, it is often difficult to separate the personal and the professional. Let me clarify, in case it escaped people’s notice, Sophie Grace Chappell did not say in her original message that discrimination against trans people would be conference policy. Still, individual trans philosophers experience rejection on an individual basis. This is independently the case from any conference policy.  

In the interest of full disclosure: Andrew Pinsent has been a mentor and invaluable help for me when I was a postdoc at Oxford, and also later. I greatly value Andrew’s philosophical work, I also value Andrew as a person, and I owe a debt of gratitude to him. So, given this situation, it was a torn and difficult decision to know what to do. I do not wish to appear ungrateful, I don’t wish to pretend this issue hasn’t happened.

Not presenting at the conference was an option, but I felt that there are several disadvantages. First, my non-appearance would not make clear what, if any, my reasons would be and might give rise to the impression that I was just succumbing under pressure. I could easily see how my conservative philosophers of religion friends would cry out “cancel culture”, or say that I am just another liberal not worth engaging with. However, I hope (and Sophie Grace Chappell told me she shares this hope) that her willingness to step forward affords us with an opportunity for us to change the field for the better.

Individual cases like these are helpful for us as a wakeup call, but the danger of focusing on them for the sake of “drama” in the profession is that we sometimes lose sight of the larger picture, namely that philosophy of religion is still by and large unwelcoming to transgender people (and other people who are LGBTQ+). One could put this down to deficiencies in character, but I here wish to focus on the structural issues.

Philosophy of religion also still has a long way to go to be more open to traditions outside of Christianity (and to a lesser extent naturalistic atheism), and to be open to people of color and people with disabilities (the issues here is that lots of traditional theological interpretations of scripture are ableist). There are still very few people of color like me who are members of the Society for Christian Philosophers and other Christian philosophical spaces. The situation for women is getting better, but judging by low numbers in the field, can still be improved substantially.

There are still very big obstacles for trans philosophers. I am hoping we could take this opportunity to draw attention to this issue. As I said, not presenting is an ambiguous statement of some sort, and so is presenting without any explanation. When I will present my paper, I intend to spend the first five minutes on expressing my solidarity with trans philosophers of religion, outlining the problems they face (I will ask feedback from several such philosophers to make sure this sounds on track but I will refrain from mentioning any specific cases), and conclude in expressing the hope we will be more inclusive. I hope this will change the hearts of at least some philosophers of religion.

I know that several philosophers of religion disagree strongly with me on the metaphysics of sexuality and gender. But I don’t think we need absolute agreement on this score. What we need is to be mindful of each other, respect each other’s pronouns (this is a courtesy you can extend even if you are gender critical), and try to make the space more welcoming. I will spend the remaining time of my talk talking about Schleiermacher and our taste for the infinite. I hope I am still welcome to come and present at the conference under those terms.

Some people might object to my idea that we can separate philosophical discourse from being welcoming to transgender people. I think this is right, it’s impossible to separate them. Trans philosophers go into spaces knowing that many people within it will not take their gender identity seriously. That must be hard, and I commend the courage of Sophie Grace Chappell and other trans philosophers (some of whom are out, not all) to navigate spaces under those conditions.

But we live in a non-ideal world, so I think what we can do is at least welcome those courageous trans philosophers balancing that with the need for openness to differences of opinion. I particularly hope we can shift the culture in conferences with a focus on Christianity where it seems to me the issue is more pressing than in conferences that have a broader focus (I cannot speak from experience of any conferences focused on any non-Christian religion).  I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I have always taken this to mean not literally that we don’t have gender or religion or that the realities of oppression would simply vanish under a Christian identity. Rather, I take it to mean that under a Christian identity, those things ultimately don’t matter. It does not matter who you are, you are loved and valued for who you are. That’s a powerful message I hope we can take more to heart in philosophy of religion conferences.

UPDATE (3/4/20): Dr. Pinsent sent the following to me (and has now also posted it to PHILOS-L):

A statement by Andrew Pinsent, approved by Sophie Grace Chappell on 3 March 2020:
To close some issues that have arisen recently between myself and Professor Sophie Grace Chappell, I state definitively and finally that there is no policy against transgender persons at the Ian Ramsey Centre. And I personally invited Sophie Grace Chappell to our 2015 conference and have now also invited her to our 2020 conference. So she might, in fact, be our most invited single speaker of recent years. Finally, I have also been in direct contact about this matter with Sophie, who has been a personal friend and respected colleague for most of the last thirty years. Although we have our disagreements, we have also discovered some significant misunderstandings that we are able to address together.

■   ■   ■   ■   ■

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On the Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/03/2020 - 10:39pm in


Racism, Religion, War

[T]hose people are barbaric, uninstructed in letters and the art of government, and completely ignorant, unreasoning, and totally incapable of learning anything but the mechanical arts; that they are sunk in vice, are cruel, and of such character that, as nature teaches, they are to be governed by the will of others....But, for their own welfare, people of this kind are held by natural law to submit to the control of those who are wiser and superior in virtue and learning, as are the Spaniards (especially the nobility), the learned, the clergy, the religious, and, finally, all those who have been properly educated and trained. Such persons must be considered when a judgment is to be made about the morals and character of any people, for in them especially shine forth natural ability, uprightness, training, and the best morals of any nation. Both in Spain and among the Indians, spiritual and temporal government is entrusted to these people rather than to soldiers, who, for the most part, are unprincipled and, under cover of military license, inflict many injuries.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the Indians are obliged by natural law to obey those who are outstanding in virtue and character in the same way that matter yields to form, body to soul, sense to reason, animals to human being, women to men, children to adults, and finally, the imperfect to the more perfect, the worse to the better, the cheaper to the more precious and excellent, to the advantage of the both. This is the natural order, which the the eternal and divine law commands be observed, according to Augustine.

Therefore, if the Indians, once warned, refuse to obey this legitimate sovereignty, they can be forced to do so for their own welfare by recourse to the terrors of war. And this war will be just both by civil and natural law, according to the second, third, and fifth chapters of the Politics of Aristotle....Finally, all political philosophers, basing themselves on this reason alone, teach that in cities, kingdoms, and states those who excel in prudence and virtue should preside with sovereignty over the government so that government may be just according to natural law....

Even if these barbarians (that is, the Indians) do not lack capacity, with still more reason they must obey and heed the commands of those who can teach them to live like human beings and do the things that are beneficial for both their present and future life.--"Summary of Sepúlveda's Position" from In Defense of the Indians by Bartolomé de Las Casas, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 11-13 [ca 1550]

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was at the time the royal historian of Emperor Charles V. Las Casas treats him as a trained theologian, but I have also seen him described as a lawyer (see here; perhaps he was both). The Summary of Sepúlveda provided by his opponent, Las Casas, understates Sepúlveda's assertion of natural hierarchies between and within peoples. A line often quoted elsewhere from Sepúlveda's (ca 1550) Democrates Alter, Or, on the Just Causes for War Against the Indians states that "The man rules over the woman, the adult over the child, the father over his children. That is to say, the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and most imperfect. This same relationship exists among men, there being some who by nature are masters and others who by nature are slaves."  This does echo Aristotle. Sepúlveda also goes beyond Aristotle. In the same document Sepúlveda pretty much compares the Indians to apes,* in a way that anticipates Rousseau's idea in a note to the Second Discourse that certain kinds of humans are apelike in the state of nature.

Of course, while Sepúlveda wholeheartedly and repeatedly embraces natural hierarchies, his argument actually does not rest on it. For he allows that, perhaps, the Indians are in no way inferior in capacity. In fact the real work is done by the purported existence of social misery, especially certain form of immorality, in their affairs ("that they are sunk in vice, are cruel,"). In fact, according to Sepúlveda intervention is required because they must be raised from their present immorality, which is bestial and savage.

Sepúlveda is relying on reports of human sacrifice and ritualized cannibalism among the Indians (see here). This matters not just because it shows they are pagans and abhorrent, but also because innocents are harmed if the Spaniards stand by and do nothing. (In context, Sepúlveda offers testimony for this assertion.)

That is the say, the thrust of Sepúlveda's argument does not rest on the reality of natural hierarchy, but rather on the claim that without Spanish, humanitarian intervention, all the Indians will be harmed to some degree, and especially the weak  innocent among them. Indian existence is a proto-Hobbesian state of nature, and so an educated Spanish sovereign is better than no sovereign. 

As an aside, even Sepúlveda indirectly admits that the Spanish conquest need not be beneficial to the Indians in all respects. For, where the Indians fall under de facto Spanish military occupation, they are simply miserably oppressed. 

Sepúlveda, thus, brings together (perhaps partially reinvents) two tropes that become extremely influential and pernicious: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may invite humanitarian intervention. This intervention is humanitarian in character because it is in the interest of the Indians to become humane ("to live like human beings") and acquire the skill and practice of civilization and thereby benefit from it politically and personally, that is, in the afterlife ("that are beneficial for both their present and future life.")). 

According to Sepúlveda, Spanish empire is providential ("God wanted the greater part of the world to come under their dominion so that it might be ruled more justly..." (p. 13)). It's notable that it's not just in Sepúlveda and adherents of providence that (recall) (i) and (ii) can amount to the same thing.




*"[If you know the customs and manners of different peoples, that the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate and the moderate and temperate and, I might even say, between apes and men."