Archive of ‘politics’ category

The Moral Obligation to Cut Carbon Emissions

It’s often said that Australia’s contributions to global carbon emissions is so small – around 1.35% – that implementing a carbon price in this country would be futile; even if it worked, and it didn’t make the economy drastically uncompetitive internationally, it still wouldn’t have a significant impact in terms of lowering global emissions.

This argument is entirely spurious for a bunch of reasons, economic, environmental and empirical. Here’s a moral one:

The amount of income tax you pay to the government is only a tiny fraction of the government’s total tax revenues. Were you to forego paying your income tax, it would have an insignificant impact on government spending.

According to the carbon emissions argument above, this would give you grounds for skipping paying your income tax.

However, if this argument gave you good reason to not pay your income tax, then it would likewise give reason to all other individuals with a similarly small or smaller tax bill to also forego paying their income tax. If it’s justified for you, it would also be justified for them. As such, your refusal to pay income tax would open the gates for others to likewise not pay their income tax.

The end result would be a significant cut in government revenue, and that would have an impact on the government’s ability to function.

By analogy, if Australia saw its relatively small proportion of global emissions as justification for not putting in place a carbon price to cut those emissions, then it would give other nations with a similar or smaller amount of global emissions justification for doing the same.

As it happens, that list of countries with similar emissions to Australia (those with <2% global) includes 206 other nations out of 214 tracked, and together they contribute over 25% of global emissions.

If we in Australia say we’re justified not cutting emissions, then 25% of global emissions are suddenly off the table. This doesn’t preclude the importance of reigning in the top emitters, but it makes reducing overall emissions substantially harder. And it hardly gives the big emitters much motivation to cut their emissions either.

The upshot: if you think others have an obligation to pay their income tax – an obligation you share – then Australia also has a similar moral obligation to cut its carbon emissions.

Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.

Political Philosophy and EVE Online

Even if you don’t dabble in massively multiplayer games, EVE Online is worth a look just for the revelations that emerge from creating a loosely regulated world and opening it up for nerds to play with.

This interview with The Mittani, who is CEO (or guild leader) of Goon Fleet, the largest corporation in EVE, is solid gold. Enlightening even. It touches on politics, human nature, psychology and even has traces of game theory lurking just under the surface

One of the greatest advertisements of all time.

First, a bit of context for those unfamiliar with the game. EVE is a space-based massively multiplayer online (MMO) game where thousands of players flit between hundreds of solar systems, each with unique planets, moons, asteroid fields and space stations, and they mine, trade and fight. Often they fight each other.

EVE has one of the most active player-versus-player (PvP) communities of any MMO. A large tract of space in EVE is called nullsec, meaning it is effectively lawless. While a player will become an outlaw and be hunted by computer-controlled authorities for attacking another player in high security (highsec) space, in lowsec there’s no automated retribution. It’s true frontier stuff.

Players can also band together to create corporations, mining the rich resources in nullsec, using those resources to build ships, equipment and even space stations. These corporations effectively gain sovereignty over that sector, and they protect it from invasion by other corporations.

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The Quality of Discourse is Low

I don’t know why I bother reading comments. Not that the irrational ejaculations to my recent piece on The Drum about conservatism and climate change do anything but support my argument that many people judge first and ask question later.

But if there’s one thing that shines through from trawling comments is that the quality of discourse today is devilishly poor.

It’s not that I’m surprised that uninformed people pontificate as if they’re experts; that they presume to pigeon hole someone else, and subsequently dismiss them, on the basis of but a few words; that many take solace in their belief that they’re obviously the only intelligent one in the room, and those who disagree with them are clearly stupid; that the employment of fallacies is seen to be signal of wit; that reason and evidence feature so seldom in any expression of disagreement; that black and white trumps shades of grey.

I’m not surprised at all. But I am disappointed that we, as a culture, don’t consider these things to be heinously embarrassing transgressions of the norms of public discourse.

We’re confronting a sizable list of dilemmas facing humanity today. Yet our public discourse is so poisonous, so divisive, so destructive that we’re lucky anyone makes progress in their thinking at all.

We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard of reason and conversation. We ought to consider fallacies to be faux pas. We ought to stop anyone who asserts without argument. We ought to be mortified if we are to let our irrational proclivities burst through the veil of reason.

That’s not to say everyone must be rational all the time. Only that we should not so readily forgive irrationality.

That so many believe ‘freedom of speech’ means ‘I have a right to say whatever tripe I believe whether it’s rational or not’ is not going to get us very far.

If people agree to hurl insults at each other, let them. But if we want to engage in a dialogue about serious questions, then we ought to be held to the base standards of rational discourse.

It begins with respect for all interlocutors, moves through to presenting thoughts backed by evidence and structured as an argument, tempered by an acknowledgement that we might be wrong, and that if proven so, we’re obliged to change our mind, and finished with humility.

Maybe I’m unrealistically optimistic or naive to believe the level of discourse can be improved. But I think it can.

At the very least it’ll help distinguish those who are serious about finding answers to tough questions, and those bile-charged individuals who are least qualified to provide solutions to the world’s toughest problems. We may never stop the zealots of unreason from having a voice, but we can at least diminish the import of their contributions, marginalise them until they’re forced to play by the rules of rational discourse or be struck mute by those with power to change the world.

It’ll take a while, but it has to begin somewhere. And if enough people adhere to the base standards of rational discourse, and politely embarrass those who don’t, and in doing so show that progress can be made on tough issues, then things might start to change. I’d like to see that happen.

The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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Top 10 Books of All Time

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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The Problem with Revolutions

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.

What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?

Ouch.

But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.0)

I was wrong. I recently wrote that the liberal-conservative political spectrum could be most parsimoniously described along a single axis representing whether the world was considered a safe or dangerous place. I no longer think that’s correct.

Instead, I’ve elaborated on that theme a little, adding a second dimension which, along with safe-dangerous world, I believe accurately characterises the political spectrum – at least psychologically.

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