Sunday, January 24, 2021

Toleration Chapter

My chapter for the Palgrave Handbook of Toleration is now available online. It advances a "virtue epistemological" account of toleration as both a personal and public virtue. The abstract:

In this chapter a virtue epistemological account of toleration is developed and defended that draws attention to a cluster of “epistemic virtues” (collectively referred to as “mindsight” (Siegel (2010) Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. Bantam Books, New York)) that are integral to exercising toleration as both a personal and public virtue. Virtue epistemology applies a normative analysis to the cognitive lives of individuals and intellectual communities (e.g., democratic country). By bringing to the fore the potential virtues and vices of our cognitive lives, virtue epistemology can offer an account of toleration that is distinct from that provided by autonomy-based arguments. The latter ignores, or at least brackets, our cognitive lives. A virtue epistemological account of toleration can help resolve the so-called “paradox of toleration,” as well as elaborate on the limits of toleration as a virtue.

KeywordsAutonomy Epistemic Virtue Hate speech Mindsight Psychology Toleration Virtue epistemology 



Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Was the Year 2020 the nail in the coffin of “Ideal Theory”?


One of the most interesting debates in normative political theory/philosophy today is the methodological debate concerning what the purpose or function of an account of (distributive) justice is (or normative theory more generally).  The debate is often characterized in different ways as there are a range of different concerns- such as realism vs utopianism, ideal/non-ideal theory, etc.  In this post I am not interested in re-hashing specific details concerning what that debate is (as there are actually many distinct debates at play) but to offer some reflections upon the evolution of my own views on this debate, and conclude with my prediction about where things will go in the future (say over the next 20 years).

Back in the last century (1999) I defended my dissertation at the University of Bristol titled “Rights and Responsibilities : An Examination of Rawlsian justice”.  At the time I was what one might call a “committed Rawlsian” (I am now a critic of Rawlsian justice, though I have immense respect for John Rawls as a political philosopher and his contribution to the discipline).  My first few journal publications (which formed part of the thesis) applied Rawls’s account of justice to the basic income debate, free speech and the issue of economic incentives.  At that time I probably had the trajectory to become a life-long Rawlsian, which would have afforded a pretty safe career trajectory for me.  But a number of developments occurred which prevented that from being the case.

What I think is particularly noteworthy about my transformation is that it did not stem from anthing I actually read, certaintly not from any other political philosophers.  A few years after my ideas had already been transformed I encountered the work of Mills and Sen  and was very happy to see others shared deep reservations about the value of ideal theory.  It was certainly reassuring to see that I was in very good company indeed!  

I can identify some specific world, professional and personal developments that caused my moral sensibilities to shift dramatically over an important 2-3 period immediately after graduate school, from being a defender of Rawls to a critic of the Rawls industry and mainstream analytical political philosophy (as it existed 20 years ago).

Perhaps I should start by mentioning the career circumstances of this transformation before I address specific events and catalysts.  The year 2000 was the first time, since age 4, that I was no longer a student in a school.  Until that time I was always a student, either writing papers for particular classes, or a thesis with a supervisor.  So the transformation from being a graduate student to faculty member brought with it the flexibility to write on what I wanted to write, and how I wanted to write it.  I think this was why this period of time was fertile for my intellectual growth and development.  A similar effect occurred after I received tenure, and promotion to full professor, but that can be the focus of another post.  Now to the specific events I think shaped my thinking, while in this “plastic and flexible” state of mind post-PhD.    

Firstly, in February 2001, two teams published their draft versions of the human genome. The publicly funded Human Genome Project published its results in the scientific journal Nature, while the private US firm Celera Genomics published its results in Science.  While I didn’t realize it initially at the time, my interest in contemplating how the expansion of the “natural lottery of life” into the purview of Rawlsian justice would end up with me, first revising, and then eventually abandoning, Rawlsian justice. I started to learn about biology and science, and realized that the bracketing of non-ideal concerns like nature/nurture and the safety, efficacy and cost of medical innovations, in addition to the the pluralistic nature of real world disadvantage, made an account of justice impotent.  Such a theory was needed precisely because of these uncertainties and complexities.  

My interest in the genetic revolution, and then aging research (around the year 2006), were crucial developments in the evolution of my thinking.  I didn’t become a critic of Rawls because of anything I read by another philosopher.  I became a critic because of what I saw as a disturbing disconnect between the pressing societal problems of the real world and the premises of his account of justice.  Rather than remaining committed to the normative theory I was working with, I was able to "pivot" to see if adjustments could solve the problem, including the adjustment of discarding the starting theory.  This cognitive flexibility accounted for the big shift in my thinking.  I cared more about figuring the problem of genetic justice out than I did in remaining committed to Rawlsian justice. 

The second major catalyst that helped shift my thinking twenty years ago was Sept 11, 2001.  The reality of terrorism, and the governmental decisions to respond to those threats in ways that entailed infringing upon basic liberties, waging wars, and creating enormous debts also made the cognitive dissonance of trying to do, and defend, ideal theory intolerable for me.  Pretending society was closed, filled with fully compliant, healthy and productive people who had no debt did not seem like a credible project to be defending, let alone taking seriously.  So instead of publishing my initial PhD dissertation, I ended up writing this book , critiquing ideal theory and defending a virtue-oriented account of justice.

The genetic revolution and 9/11 were the two major catalyst events that propelled my doubts about the importance and coherence of ideal theory.  I also wrote a textbook about contemporary political theory shortly after completing my PhD, and canvassing a plurality of theoretical traditions, especially concerns arising in the 1990s from feminism, multiculturalism, deliberative democracy and global justice, made me also realize there were serious chinks in the armour of Rawlsian justice.  At the same time I switched from teaching in philosophy departments to political science departments.  Students in the latter did not have a high tolerance for discussing Dworkin’s “clam shell” auction or Rawls’s “closed society” when events like globalization, terrorism and climate change were occurring in the real world.  For many philosophy students the discipline can be a refuge from the real world, but for political science students the opposite is often true. 

And finally, becoming a busy parent and father, first in 2000, then again in 2002, and one more time in 2007, also made me aware of the complexities of navigating the moral predicaments of life when there is such a deluge of responsibilities and demands on people’s time, resources, attention, etc.  Most debates in ethics and political philosophy seem to presume the average person in life exists solely as a full-time moral philosopher who has nothing else to do but contemplate how unethical a specific behaviour or action is in isolation from all the other decisions and actions they must undertake.  This tendency to focus on one moral duty or ethical predicament in isolation from the totality of the moral landscape seemed to me (and still does) to be particularly problematic for an area of study that purports to contribute wisdom to how we ought to live our lives.

That is a summary of my own personal journey from ideal to non-ideal theory.  The realities of the real world are just too important to bracket or ignore (especially for theorists of justice).  I have a great appreciation for the contributions of Mills and Sen to these debates, for they too bring to the fore the realities of the non-ideal world, in the form of the existence and persistence of racism and our ability to engage with the “eyes of mankind”.  

So why do I think the year 2020 might be the “nail on the coffin” of ideal theory?  Firstly, let me say I titled the post mostly in jest.  I actually do not want to see ideal theory disappear completely.  I have no problem with some, marginal, area of the discipline dedicated to studying that topic.  What I do have a problem with is ideal theory being the dominant paradigm of the discipline.  As it was in the year 2000 when my thinking started to change and I thought there must be something wrong with my thinking as I was going against the grain of the discipline and I found my research critical of Rawls had a much harder getting published than my material defended Rawls.  I do not think ideal theory enjoys the prominence it once did, and I think the year 2020 will further cement its marginalization, for at least 3 reasons.

Three very significant events occurred in the year 2020 that strain the legitimacy of ideal theory projects- these were (1) the COVID-19 pandemic (2) the global BLM protests to the killing of George Floyd, and (3) Donald Trump’s presidency.  In the Rawlsian ideal society there are no viruses, let alone those that can travel across oceans to cause a pandemic.  In the Rawlsian ideal society there is no institutional racism, nor Presidents that show disdain for democratic traditions and institutions and inspire hate. 

A lot has changed in the discipline over 40 years, and I believe the events of 2020 will continue the trend of the past 10 years.  I predict the future of value theory (ethics and political philosophy) will become more interdisciplinary, with a more "applied focus" and less armchair/ idealized theory.  Of course my prediction is biased by my own experience, so I could well be wrong about this (there could very well be a renaissance of ideal theory- but I don’t think the optics of that occurring look likely).  I think it was easier for someone in academia, writing in the early 1970s, to be somewhat aloof to developments in the real world.  But I think that is much harder to do, let alone justify, in the 21st century.  

I look forward to seeing how the discipline evolves in the years to come.      



Monday, January 18, 2021

Maintaining a Sense of Perspective and Proportionality During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Post #3- 1 year later)

This post is part of my ongoing series of reflections (Part 1, Part 2) on the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining a sense of proportionality.  

Like in my previous posts, I start with my usual disclaimer... this pandemic is a very serious public health predicament.  At the same time, it is nothing close to the biggest public health challenge of today, nor of the past 100 years.  

One year since the start of this pandemic and I think there are both potential success stories (namely the speed of vaccine development) but also plenty of (repeated!) public health failures, the biggest of which are the continued lockdowns of healthy people and the cancellation of school for children.  In this post I want to draw attention to two parts of the media portrayal of the pandemic that exacerbate our tendency to mismanage this pandemic (leading us to cause more harm than good).

The first thing I will note is the fact that the death count of COVID-19 for the year 2021 has carried over the deaths from the previous year (2020).  This is unprecedented for any other cause of death in the world.  If we did this for cancer, for example, then there would be at least some 220+ million deaths and counting from 1990 through to the present (source).  The year 2021 should have re-set COVID-19 mortality, not carried last year's deaths over to this year.  This distorts our understanding of how severe this infectious disease is compared to other public health problems (all of which re-set their death counts at the start of the calendar year).

The problem with the media's fixation on COVID-19 deaths is there is no sense of comparison to other causes of death.  For example, in the year 2019 approximately 55 million people died.  In the year 2020 the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1.8 million people died of/with COVID-19.  So this would account for roughly 3.2% of all deaths.  What killed the other 97% of human beings who died last year?  You probably never heard about these deaths in the news or social media.  When only COVID-19 mortality is reported on the news then the risk of COVID-19 mortality is "on screen" and all other deaths "off screen", giving the impression that everyone that is dying is dying from the virus.   The reality is that the vast majority of human beings in the world today are dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer, other infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS, traffic accidents, suicides, poverty etc.  

To get an accurate sense of how serious the COVID-19 mortality of 2020 was we should compare it to a disease that killed a comparable number of people.  Diabetes is such a disease (killed 1.6 million people in 2018).  But with diabetes a significantly higher proportion of those who died where younger than age 70 than those who died from COVID-19.  So diabetes is much more lethal to the young that COVID-19.  It is also one of the risk factors for severe COVID-19.  I did not hear one single news report on diabetes in the year 2020 (unless it was related to COVID-19).

This brings me to a second point I think it is worth emphasizing to help us keep everything in perspective.  I preface the following comments by repeating my point that the speed of the COVID-19 vaccines are an amazing public health breakthrough.  They are the one true success story in the public health response to this pandemic in 2020.  I have heard many a politician talk about these vaccines "saving" people living in long-term care facilities.  But, technically speaking, the vaccines will only protect the elderly from one specific risk factor- COVID-19.  Receiving the vaccine does not mean the elderly will be immune to the other health problems they typically suffer- such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, dementia, etc.  So the biggest health threats to this age cohort will continue despite the COVID-19 vaccines.    

The realities of global aging and multi-morbidity in late life have been neglected in our public health response to, and media coverage of, this pandemic.  I have been teaching courses on the ethics of life extension for over 15 years, and I have seen an amazing, rapid shift in many people's attitudes to the issues I have been studying for years since this pandemic.  Let me summarize the shift in attitudes as follows:

Prior to the year 2020:  Typical responses to the prospect of extending the "healthspan" of humans include  "People live too long already, this is harmful to... the environment, the job market... or..... we will get bored, etc."

Since the COVID-19 pandemic in the year 2020:  Typical response to protecting the elderly from COVID-19:  "Everyone should be locked down indefinitely, including healthy persons who might potentially catch the virus and spread it"  "Cancel in-person schooling"  "You can't put an economic value on saving lives" "Make people wear face masks!" "Force people to be vaccinated" "Report your neighbour if they violate social distancing or limits on people in their house", etc.  

The shift in attitudes has been unfathomable.  I am still trying to process what could account for this dramatic shift in attitudes.  

Now I myself am all in favour of promoting evidence-based, cost-effective, reasonable measures to promote health in late life.  What I strongly oppose are speculative, authoritarian measures that impose an indefinite quasi-quarantine on healthy persons to reduce one specific risk of death in less healthy people.  

When the dust has settled on this pandemic I believe we will have caused much more harm from our lockdown measures than good.  At the moment the news is dominated by the number of positive COVID-19 tests and deaths.  But the adverse impacts of lockdowns-  especially on our children (in terms of their education and mental health)- will be catastrophic and last for years.  

I finish here by linking to UNIFEC's call to end the school disruptions to children.  From the statement from the Executive Director of UNICEF:

“As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as cases continue to soar around the world, no effort should be spared to keep schools open or prioritize them in reopening plans.

“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year.

“The cost of closing schools – which at the peak of pandemic lockdowns affected 90 per cent of students worldwide and left more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education – has been devastating.



Thursday, January 14, 2021

Publishing First!

This week was a very pleasant "first" for me publication-wise.  Within a 24 hour period I received word that two different journal submissions were accepted for publication!   Both had been substantively revised after the first round of reviews, and writing/revising these two papers consumed a very sizable chunk of my research time.  So it was a very rewarding experience to see them pay off with getting accepted.  Whew!

The first article is a "Perspectives" submission to the Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences (published by Oxford University Press and the Gerontological Society of American) titled “COVID-19, Biogerontology and the Ageing of Humanity”. This was a real labour of love to write as there was an immense volume of scientific studies published in the first year of the pandemic. Trying to stay abreast of this research, while trying to work from home with kids home from school for half the year, in addition to moving all my own teaching online, was very daunting. But as soon as the initial pandemic data emerged that age was the greatest risk factor of COVID-19 mortality I knew there would be a significant contribution the science of ageing could contribute to the ongoing public health response to this pandemic. So I am very happy to add a contribution to these debates.

ABSTRACT: The World Health Organization designated the decade 2020-2030 as the “decade of healthy ageing”. It is a tragic irony that the year 2020 should begin with a pandemic that is so lethal for older persons. Not only are older persons the most vulnerable to COVID-19 mortality, but many of the mitigation efforts to slow the spread of the virus have imposed yet further emotional and mental health burdens on the most vulnerable among those over age 70. To help prevent future infectious disease mortality and suffering, as well as the profound health burdens from the chronic diseases associated with ageing, insights from biogerontology must become an integral part of global public health priorities. The timing is ripe for making the public health aspiration of developing an applied gerontological intervention a reality.

The other article that was accepted this year is the longest journal article I have ever written at 14000+ words.  It examines the ideal/non-ideal debate through the lens of the genetic revolution.  It builds on the research I have been doing on this topic for the past 20 years.  The paper is entitled "How Should We Theorize about Justice in the Genomic Era?" and it is now forthcoming in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences.  

ABSTRACT:  The sequencing of the human genome, the advances of gene therapy and genomic editing, coupled with embryo selection techniques and a potential gerontological intervention, these are some of the examples of the rapid technological advances of the “genetic revolution”.  This paper addresses the methodological issue of how we should theorize about justice in the genomic era.  Invoking the methodology of non-ideal theory, I argue that theorizing about justice in the genomic era entails theorizing about (1) the new inequalities the genetic revolution could possibly exacerbate (e.g. genetic discrimination, disability-related injustices and gender inequality), and (2) those inequalities the revolution could help us mitigate (e.g. the risks of disease in early and late life).  By doing so normative theorists can ensure we develop an account of justice that takes seriously not only individual rights, equality of opportunity, the cultural and socio-political aspects of disability and equality between the sexes, but also the potential health benefits (to both individuals and populations) of attending to the evolutionary causes of morbidity and disability.  

I think this weekend I might kick back a bit and treat myself to a nice movie, beer and takeout!