Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ideas for New Paper

This blog post is posted on my FB page with comments open. If you are a political philosopher who wishes to comment please send me a FB friend request.

In the coming weeks I hope to develop some ideas that I have been mulling over for a few years now on methodological issues in normative political philosophy into a coherent paper tentatively titled “Justice by Earthlings” or "Psychology Constrains Political Philosophy".

I thought I would try something new for me and invite FB friends interested in ideal/non-ideal theory to offer comments, suggestions, etc. as I work through these ideas while they are still at a somewhat embryonic stage of development. I would be very appreciative for any suggested readings, criticisms, etc.

What I propose to do is post 2 or 3 short FB posts on the central arguments I am developing. What follows below is an overall summary of the paper I envision writing. A future post will expand upon some of these points in greater detail. Comments and suggestions most welcome!

In recent years political philosophers have turned their attention to methodological issues within the discipline. A number of questions have been raised concerning the relation between empirical facts about humans (e.g. human nature) and societies (e.g. racism, scarcity of goods, colonialism, globalization, etc.) and the normative principles and theories developed by political philosophers. Most of this debate has focused attention on the potential constraints human nature ought, or ought not, to have on the principles of justice themselves. In this paper I emphasize the importance of extending an empirically-informed critical light on the discipline even further, namely, to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher herself. Doing so can, I argue, help progress the so-called “ideal/non-ideal” debate in novel and useful ways. Defenders of ideal theory presuppose that the normative theorist can deduce “fact-insensitive” (Cohen) normative principles or those appropriate for a “realistic utopia” (Rawls). By drawing attention to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher, the limitations and hazards of highly idealized and abstract analyses of justice can be effectively highlighted.

In Justice for Earthlings David Miller suggests that political philosophers should invest a greater amount of their time and energy in ensuring that the empirical claims their theories or principles are predicated upon are valid or defensible. To determine how much weight and attention should be devoted to empirical insights from the social sciences, argues Miller, theorists must not only ponder “What is political theory?”, but also “How, and why, should we go about doing it?” Employing a “virtue epistemological” (Greco, Zagzebski) analysis of the goals and aspirations of political theory/philosophy, one that equates knowledge with “success from ability”, I argue that the ultimate aim of the discipline is to yield emancipatory knowledge. However, to have success in this endeavor the normative theorist must develop insights, theories, and principles that guard against (at least) three common cognitive limitations and errors of “Earthlings”- (1) categorical thinking (at least those kinds which undermine emancipatory knowledge), (2) prospection errors (which can skew the aspirations of a normative theory, even a “realistic utopia”) and (3) thinking in terms of sacred values (which can make normative principles or theories inert by obstructing our ability to contemplate reasonable ways of navigating the tradeoffs that must inevitably be made between desired goals and values in the real world).

I conclude that the take home message of the “psychology constrains political philosophy” maxim is that normative theorists should develop more contextualized and provisional theories and principles than those typical of the ideal theory paradigm.

Cheers,
Colin


Thursday, February 20, 2014

SPP Article Now Out

My paper titled "EMPIRICAL ETHICS AND THE DUTY TO EXTEND THE “BIOLOGICAL WARRANTY PERIOD”is now available in the latest issue of Social Philosophy and Policy. The abstract:

The world's aging populations face novel health challenges never experienced before in human history. The moral landscape thus needs to adapt to reflect this novel empirical reality. In this paper I take for granted one basic moral principle advanced by Peter Singer — a principle of preventing bad occurrences — and explore the implications that empirical considerations from demography, evolutionary biology, and biogerontology have for the way we conceive of fulfilling this principle at the operational level. After bringing to the fore a number of considerations that Singer ignores, such as the probability that nonintervention will result in harm and the likelihood that different kinds of extrinsic and intrinsic harms can be prevented, I argue that the aspiration to extend the human biological warranty period (by retarding the rate of aging) is a pressing moral imperative for the twenty-first century. In the final sections I briefly address some standard objections raised against life extension and conclude that, while there may be some legitimate concerns worth addressing, they are not compelling enough to provide a rational basis for forfeiting the potential health and economic benefits that could be realized by extending the biological warranty period.




Cheers,
Colin

Friday, October 18, 2013

Norman Geras (RIP)

So sorry to learn the news that my former colleague from Manchester University and friend Norm Geras has died. Norm will be sadly missed. The Guardian reports here.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Health Affairs Article on Age Retardation

The Oct 2013 issue of Health Affairs has this important article which is worth noting. Here is the abstract:

Recent scientific advances suggest that slowing the aging process (senescence) is now a realistic goal. Yet most medical research remains focused on combating individual diseases. Using the Future Elderly Model—a microsimulation of the future health and spending of older Americans—we compared optimistic “disease specific” scenarios with a hypothetical “delayed aging” scenario in terms of the scenarios’ impact on longevity, disability, and major entitlement program costs. Delayed aging could increase life expectancy by an additional 2.2 years, most of which would be spent in good health. The economic value of delayed aging is estimated to be $7.1 trillion over fifty years. In contrast, addressing heart disease and cancer separately would yield diminishing improvements in health and longevity by 2060—mainly due to competing risks. Delayed aging would greatly increase entitlement outlays, especially for Social Security. However, these changes could be offset by increasing the Medicare eligibility age and the normal retirement age for Social Security. Overall, greater investment in research to delay aging appears to be a highly efficient way to forestall disease, extend healthy life, and improve public health.

Cheers,
Colin

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

International Day of Older Persons

video

Today is the International Day of Older Persons. I re-post the video above to mark the occasion.

Cheers,
Colin

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics Paper Now Out in Print

My paper "Normative Theorizing about Genetics" is now out in the latest issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.

A sample from the paper:

Genes are special, from the perspective of theorizing about justice, because they (1) have been neglected in our normative theorizing (and thus warrant special attention to redress this neglect so that we are better prepared to fairly regulate new genetic technologies), (2)are unique resources and thus require the normative theorist to develop a skill set that is unique from the skills required for tackling the distribution of external resources like wealth, and (3) play an important role in the development of a wide range of valued phenotypes.

....First, the role genes play in the development of important phenotypes (like health and intelligence) has largely been ignored by theories of distributive justice. Historically this neglect was unproblematic, as the prospect of genetic intervention seemed mere science fiction. But now these technologies have become a reality. So in one important sense genes are special in that they, unlike the distribution of wealth and income, have been ignored in our normative theorizing. In order to develop a more balanced account of justice, one that gives attention to both the genetic and the environmental factors that influence the natural primary goods, we need to make genes special in our normative theorizing. Without doing this, we are unlikely to redress this deficiency in our theories of justice, and we thus risk jeopardizing a just regulation of genetic technologies. We cannot simply take theories of justice that have been designed with the distribution of wealth and income in mind and add genetics (what I referred to earlier as the “add genetics and stir” approach). Taking human biology seriously will require us to rethink, at a foundational level, what the demands of justice are.

....A second reason why genetics are special is that they are what we might call unique resources, and as such they require special attention from normative theorists. The genes we possess are the product of the evolutionary history of life on this planet, and they are an integral part of our biology. Genes are not distributed like wealth and income. The latter are primarily influenced by the political economy of society. The levels and kinds of taxation that a market-based economy implements, for example, will largely determine what the pattern of socioeconomic goods is in a society (e.g., equality or inequality). In the case of natural endowments, the pattern of genetic endowments that arises in any given society will be mostly influenced by (1) the evolutionary history of the human species, (2) the reproductive decisions of the members of the society in question, and (3) environment, as revealed through the recent findings of epigenetics.

....This leads to the third, and perhaps most important and obvious, reason why genes are special—they can have a profound impact on our life prospects. Inheriting the gene for a single-gene disorder, for example, can severely limit the expected lifetime acquisition of health and intelligence. If you are born with infantile Tay-Sachs, you will most likely die by five years of age. If you are born with a mutation of the FMR1 gene and develop fragile X syndrome, you may develop learning disabilities or even suffer mental impairment. So the genes you inherit can increase your risk of disease, disability, and death. Some people actually inherit genes that make it possible for them to enjoy significantly more years of health than the average person. Recent studies of centenarians and supercentenarians (those who live to 110 years or more) and the impact of “longevity genes” suggests
that there is a significant genetic component at play in healthy aging.


Cheers,
Colin

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pinker on Science and the Humanities



I greatly admire the work of Steven Pinker. And his latest piece in the New Republic on science and the humanities is outstanding. So many aspects of the piece resonate with me as a scholar trained in the humanities/social sciences, who aspires to be informed by, and engage with, the natural sciences (see the video above for my latest views on this topic).

A sample of some of my favourite excerpts from Pinker's article:

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

.... We have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of. This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

....It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.

....In which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.

....the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

....And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age.
Any my central pedagogical aspiration is to redress the problem Pinker notes here:

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science.
And the piece concludes:

If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.


Cheers,
Colin