Review of John Broome

I wrote a review of John Broome’s book, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, for the TLS, called ‘Justice for a Dollar A Day’.  It’s here if you’re a subscriber.  The headline comes from Broome’s surprising views about justice and goodness.  Here’s an extract from the review:

Surprisingly, Broome argues that goodness doesn’t demand much of us as individuals.  You could throw yourself at reducing your carbon footprint, spend your savings on a yurt and a sustainable life, but you’d do much more good, extend many more lives, by simply donating some money to help combat tuberculosis.  If you want to do something good, reducing your emissions is an ineffective choice.  On the other hand, governments really do have the power and resources to make a difference to the climate. Duties of goodness fall exclusively on them.

Individuals should think instead about justice.  Broome cites the World Health Organization’s estimate that the lifetime emissions of an average person in the West will wipe out more than six months of healthy human life. We’re all doing serious harm, and justice demands that we reduce our carbon footprints to zero.  Broome argues that we should do all the usual environmentally friendly things – don’t waste water, be frugal with energy – and then cancel out our remaining emissions by offsetting, paying for the removal of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere equal to our emissions.  For an average American this adds up to just $300 per year – your obligations to justice discharged for less than a dollar a day.  It’s a bold claim, as many environmentalists are incapable of discussing offsetting without mentioning the sale of indulgences.  Broome finds the usual objections wanting.

It’s a good book, I think.  Well worth reading.

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John Corvino on same sex marriage

Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, recently cancelled a talk on same sex marriage by John Corvino, head of philosophy at Wayne State University.  Here’s a bit from New York Times on the matter (the whole article is here).

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The college apparently re-invited him, following loud objections, and Corvino’s reply is here.

The current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine features a piece by Corvino on same sex marriage, and as his views are muffled elsewhere, it might be good to give them a hearing.  Here’s the article. The comments are open at talking philosophy.

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Dunwich Dynamo

PICT6958Here’s a short blog post for the Guardian: Pedaling Through the Night on the Dunwich Dynamo.  In a sentence, around 2,000 cyclists on everything from road bikes to tandems show up at a pub in Hackney around 8 pm and ride through the night, unsupported, about 120 miles on mostly dark country roads to Dunwich on the Suffolk Coast.  Here’s more info from Southwark Cyclists.  It’s the furthest I’ve ever cycled, and it was an amazing, beautiful, challenging ride.  I managed it in 13 and a half hours or so.

There’s the obvious question: why?  I think probably it is an objectively ridiculous thing to do, but then again so is almost all sport.  You’ve got to get this ball in that hole over there, but you can’t walk over and drop it in — you have to start here and use these sticks and try to hit it in.  Almost all sporting endeavors are weird like this, it’s just that you’re more used to them than long distance cycling.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Bartitsu at Fenton House

Garvey Buchan bartitsuBartitsu is called many things:  the West’s first mixed martial art, the fighting style of Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian gentleman’s martial art.  It was assembled from boxing, savate, cane fighting and jiu jitsu by Edward William Barton-Wright and taught in London around the start of the twentieth century.  It then more or less vanished.  Barton-Wright left some detailed instructions and photos behind, and lately game enthusiasts have resurrected the style.  For more have a look at the Bartitsu Society’s site or Tony Wolf’s indispensable The Bartitsu Compendium.

Some friends from the UCL Jitsu Club and I got together to demonstrate a little bartitsu at the Idler Garden Party last weekend — an afternoon of diversions against the backdrop of Fenton House in Hampstead.  It was an enormous amount of fun.  We had the slightly weird but pleasant experience of drinking gin, listening to a ukulele lesson, hearing a philosophy lecture, and throwing each other around in the grass — not in that order.

Some of the movements in bartitsu are instantly recognizable to people who do martial arts today, but other techniques, if you’ll pardon the pun, throw us a little — ‘Why did Barton-Wright do it that way?’ we wonder.  But of course, he was nearer the Japanese source than we are now, so we pay attention to his way of doing things.  It’s a little like martial arts archaeology, and so far it’s been hugely rewarding.

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Reputational Risk

Here’s a short interview from an event called Reuptational Risk Drivers for the Insurance Industry, at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.  ‘Reputational Risk’ is an unfortunate name, but those attending meant much more than merely whitewashing or, as one put it, corporate social responsibility as ‘business as usual, but plant some trees too’.  Getting into moral trouble is a risk to a business’s reputation, but the motivation for doing the right thing ought to go much deeper than this — and I think, for those speaking and attending the event, it certainly does.

On the ground, it’s complicated.  For example, you might think that a company ought to have no dealings at all with businesses which operate in places with dubious human rights records.  I’m inclined to agree, but I met people who talked about the moral value of sometimes engaging with such businesses with a view to changing them for the better, improving conditions and pay and prospects generally for workers.  They’re asking hard questions —  walking away from some profitable deals rather than run the risk of making a moral mistake.  Taking part in the event was certainly eye-opening for me.

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Racist Bridges

Here’s a short piece for the Huffington Post, kind of about the moral use of technology.  There’s a well-worn example of some bridges, built low over the roads to a nice beach. The thought is that cars can slip underneath, but buses can’t — so rich, mostly white car owners can enjoy the beach, and the poor, mostly black users of public transport cannot.  The moral of the story, drawn by the social theorist Langdon Winner, is that some objects literally have politics.  The bridges are not used for racist ends, but are themselves imbued with racist values.  I have no idea what to think about this, but the possibility is at least intriguing.  Maybe technology is not a neutral tool.  Maybe it does what it does, to some extent, whether we like it or not.

I’ll be talking about this at the philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn on 2 June, in a session called ‘Luddites and Fools‘.

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Back to big thinking

The current issue of tpm features a series of essays on grassroots philosophy — philosophy that’s alive and at large outside the academic world.  We’re putting some of the essays online for free, and here’s one by Hilary Lawson, called ‘Back to Big Thinking’.

Some say that philosophy is marginalised, it has lost its way — to some loud scientists, philosophy is even a figure of fun.  What happened?  Lawson wonders whether analytic philosophy is responsible.

What came to be known as analytic philosophy developed its own arcane character and its own impenetrable terminology. In the process it has gradually walled itself in to its own ivory tower. At the outset the philosophy of logical analysis set out to provide the framework for others to do their thinking. It was to be the under-labourer clearing the ground. No grand theories here, just solid work aimed at making life more effective for other disciplines.

The very project of course in some sense demeaned philosophy – although it may have appealed to a British sense of understatement. Gone were the goals of a grand metaphysical vision. Instead, a limited role lay ahead. This would have been well if it had succeeded. If the clarifications it offered had indeed proved valuable to other disciplines and if other disciplines had taken its insights as a basis for their own investigations.

The reality has been rather more prosaic. A century of analytic philosophy is hard pushed to find a single clarification that has been of any real value to another discipline. Not least perhaps because such advances relied on the emergence of agreement amongst philosophical enquirers. How could other disciplines make use of the new insights if philosophers themselves were still in dispute? Philosophers in the public mind actually outpace economists or politicians in this respect as the philosophical joke currently doing the rounds neatly identifies: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change”.

The application of logic to language never lived up to Russell’s dream. Having demonstrated that logic could describe mathematics, or so he believed, he understandably wished to extend this to language, thereby providing a perfect medium, free of error, for all to use. It was a great idea. It has motivated generations of philosophers and philosophy departments. The problem though is that the dream is impossible – as Wittgenstein thought he had demonstrated in the Tractatus, almost at the outset of the project.

Philosophy has not turned into a science. The twentieth century desire to do so can now be seen as a wide-eyed scientism, the response of a culture that was so enamoured with the success of science that it sought to replicate it in every field. A century on the idea seems far-fetched. Under-labourers are all very well but not so effective if each is challenging the others work. Logic was meant to cut through dispute and provide definitive conclusions. Unsurprisingly it failed to do so. Is there anyone who seriously believes that philosophy is closer to definitive conclusions today than it was a century ago?

Well?  Anyone?  You can read the whole article here.

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