From the monthly archives:

November 2022

Cartoon Philosophers

by John Holbo on November 30, 2022

At night I just can’t deal with words no more, man, so I draw pictures. I like to have some graphics project I can chip away at – like gardening. For the past year-or-so it’s been: trying to cartoon 100 philosophers in a symmetry-ish, geometry-ish style. I think I’m up to 64 or so. Plus I did Lovecraft, Kafka, Poe. For variety. (Or you can declare them honorary philosophers.)

I’ve shown his stuff off, a bit, here at CT, but I’ll see fit to share more now. You can buy ’em on mugs and stuff, if so inclined. ‘Tis the season!

Speaking of which, I’ve posted good old “Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness”, in readable form, so you can give yourselves a shiver around the fire with that.

As to the philosophers, I like to draw ’em nice – kinda elegant, I hope – then make ’em silly in faux-retro or disco style. Also, repeating wallpaper-style patterns. I like that. So! A small sampler, for your amusement and edification. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: birds at Crosby

by Chris Bertram on November 27, 2022

Crosby beach

On What We Owe the Future, Part 2 (some polemic)

by Eric Schliesser on November 26, 2022

This is the second post on MacAskill’s book. (The first one is here; it lists some qualities about the book that I admire.)

Two ground-rules about what follows:

  1. I ignore all the good non-longtermist, effective altruism (EA) has done. It’s mostly wonderful stuff, and no cynicism about it is warranted.
  2. I ignore MacAskill’s association with SBF/FTX. I have said what I want to say about it (here), although if any longtermists associated with the EA movement come to comment here, I hope they remember that the EA community directly benefitted from fraud (and that there is an interesting question to what degree it was facilitated by the relentless mutual backscratching of the intellectual side of the EA community and SBF); and perhaps focus on helping the victims of SBF.
  • Perhaps, for some consequentialists (1) and (2) cancel each other out?

[click to continue…]

There has been a lot of talk lately about a revival of nuclear power, partly in response to the need to replace the energy previously supplied by Russia, and partly as a longer-term response to climate change. To the extent that this means avoiding premature closure of operational nuclear plants, while coal is still operating, this makes sense. But new nuclear power does not.

The misconception that nuclear makes economic sense remains widespread, but has been refuted many times. Less remarked on is the misconception is that the big obstacle to nuclear power is opposition from environmentalists.
[click to continue…]

Happy Thanksgiving!

Now, philosophy and science fiction. Also, it’s after Thanksgiving, so I can bring up Christmas.

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Ted Chiang on “Time Travel in Fiction and Physics”. I teach ‘philosophy and science fiction’ and have my kids read more than a few Chiang stories. I was gratified two of my teaching ‘takes’ turned out to scoop Chiang’s lecture neatly. (I’m only slightly aggrieved he is plagiarizing me as to the meaning of his stories. I’ll let that slide.)

So here’s how I am so clever in my teaching. [click to continue…]

On MacAskill’s *What We Owe the Future*, Part 1

by Eric Schliesser on November 24, 2022

The effect of such extreme climate change is difficult to predict. We just do not know what the world would be like if it were more than seven degrees warmer; most research has focused on the impact of less than five degrees. Warming of seven to ten degrees would do enormous harm to countries in the tropics, with many poor agrarian countries being hit by severe heat stress and drought. Since these countries have contributed the least to climate change, this would be a colossal injustice.
But it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse. For example, one pressing concern about climate change is the effect it might have on agriculture. Although climate change would be bad for agriculture in the tropics, there is scope for adaptation, temperate regions would not be as badly damaged, and frozen land would be freed up at higher latitudes. There is a similar picture for heat stress. Outdoor labour would become increasingly difficult in the tropics because of heat stress, which would be disastrous for hotter and poorer countries with limited adaptive capacity. But richer countries would be able to adapt, and temperate regions would emerge relatively unscathed.–William MacAskill (2022) What We Owe The Future, “chapter 6: collapse” p 136.

Two ground-rules about what follows:

  1. I ignore all the good non-longtermist, effective altruism (EA) has done. It’s mostly wonderful stuff, and no cynicism about it is warranted.
  2. I ignore MacAskill’s association with SBF/FTX. I have said what I want to say about it (here), although if any longtermists associated with the EA movement come to comment here, I hope they remember that the EA community directly benefitted from fraud (and that there is an interesting question to what degree it was facilitated by the relentless mutual backscratching of the intellectual side of the EA community and SBF); and perhaps focus on helping the victims of SBF.
  • Perhaps, for some consequentialists (1) and (2) cancel each other out?

Anyway, after my post on MacAskill’s twitter thread (here) and my post on the concluding pages of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (here), I was told by numerous people that I ought to read MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future. And while I am going to be rather critical in what follows (and subsequent posts), I want to note a few important caveats: first, MacAskill is asking very interesting social questions, and draws on a wide range of examples (also historically far apart). I am happy this is a possible future for philosophy today. Second, he is an engaging writer. Third, What We Owe the Future is — as the first and last chapter make clear — quite explicitly intended as a contribution to movement building, and that means that the standards of evaluation cannot be (say) identical to what one might expect in a journal article. In a future post, I’ll have something to say about the relationship between public philosophy and movement building, but in this post I will be silent on it. Fourth, if you are looking for a philosophically stimulating review of What We Owe the Future, I warmly recommend Peter Wolfendale’s essay here for a general overview (here). If you are especially interested in objections to the axiology, I warmly recommend Kierin Setiya’s piece in Boston Review (here). It’s also worth re-reading Amia Srinivasan’s high profile, prescient critique of MacAskill’s earlier work (here).*

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Crosby beach

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2022

Crosby beach- Another Place

Inequality and poverty; history and counterfactuals

by Paul Segal on November 17, 2022

In 1979 Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption (he more recently of the UK’s Supreme Court) wrote:

A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat. It is not poor if it cannot afford endless smokes and it does not become poor by the mere fact that other people can afford them. A person who enjoys a standard of living equal to that of a medieval baron cannot be described as poor for the sole reason that he has chanced to be born into a society where the great majority can live like medieval kings. By any absolute standard there is very little poverty in Britain today.

There are a lot of things wrong with this passage, which informed Joseph’s policy advice to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of the UK. But it raises important questions about counterfactuals in thinking about inequality, poverty, and well-being. 

[click to continue…]

A journey from London to Aden in 1865

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2022

I discovered recently that my late Aunt Mary, who was in her time PA to the Postmaster General and a crack typist, had transcribed a letter from a distant relative of ours recounting a journey in 1865 from London to Aden (part of a journey to India). The letter seems sufficiently interesting to post here at Crooked Timber. Among the points of interest are the speed of the journey to Marseilles (remember, we are only 35 years into the railway era), seeing de Lesseps in Egypt — who has constructed the “Sweet Water Canal” (the Ismaïlia Canal) and has yet to complete the Suez Canal), impressions of the various places he passed through, and the tragic funeral of a young man who has died of drink. But much else besides. I’ve digitized by using the OCR on my phone and have checked the various oddities and spellings, so this should be an accurate reproduction.

S.S. Mooltan, Red Sea
22 December 1865

My dear Nelly,

I promised Mamma that I would send you all a letter but the old “Ripon” made such bad weather of it that although an old sailor I could not write very comfortably on board her and therefore all the writing that I did on board was either on business or to your dear Mother. We are now in a very fine large ship and as the weather is fine the sea very smooth and I have a cabin to myself, I can write in comfort and without being disturbed. You will I am sure like to have a kind of log or journal of my proceeding since I left you all on Monday and I will try and recollect the places that I have passed through and any little incidents that may be interesting and jot them down on paper to post at Aden, and although addressed to your dear Nelly you must understand that this letter is meant for all my dear children, and as I shall probably not write to your Mother from Aden, why, this will suffice to let her know also that I am in health and as happy as I can be while away from all I love.

[click to continue…]

For Working-Class Academics

by Chris Armstrong on November 14, 2022

Last week I was talking to a new academic acquaintance, when ‘that thing’ happened: we worked out that we’d both grown up on council estates, within working-class, non-university-attending families.[i] We smiled our smile of mutual recognition, and began swapping stories about how we’d navigated the treacherous territory to where we are now. It’s something that has happened to me a number of times before – though not an especially large number of times, actually, considering that I’m two decades into my career.

That’s not altogether surprising. A survey by the (UK) Universities and Colleges Union this month showed that most working class academics feel their class has affected their career progression, and nearly half believe it affects initial recruitment into the profession. The Social Mobility Foundation has just reported that working class academics earn £5,800 less per year in the UK than their middle-class peers. A third have personally felt discrimination based on their accent.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Sète

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2022


A rant on FTX, William MacAskill, and Utilitarianism

by Eric Schliesser on November 13, 2022

Philosophy goes through self-conscious, periodic bouts of historical forgetting.* These are moments when philosophical revolutionaries castigate the reading of books and the scholastic jargon to be found in there, and invite us to think for ourselves and start anew with a new method or new techniques, or new ways of formulating questions (and so on). When successful, what follows tends to be beautiful, audacious conceptual and even material world-building (in which sometimes old material is quietly recycled or reinterpreted). Hobbes, Descartes, Bentham, Frege, and Carnap are some paradigmatic exemplars of the phenomenon (that has something in common with, of course, religious reformations and scientific revolutions). There is a clear utility in not looking back.

What’s unusual about utilitarianism is not that it’s a nearly continuous intellectual tradition that is more than two centuries rich. Even if we start the clock with the pre-Socratics that’s not yet a very old tradition by the standards of the field. But rather that it has become so cavalier about curating and reflecting on its own tradition. In one sense that’s totally understandable from within the tradition: the present just is the baseline from which we act or design institutions or govern society (etc.). Spending time on the past just is opportunity costs foregone or, worse, a sunk-cost fallacy. Worrying about path dependencies and endowment effects prevents one from the decisive path forward.

[click to continue…]

A Good Week for Liberty

by Eric Schliesser on November 10, 2022

It’s probably not an entire coincidence that the Russians plan to withdraw from Kherson after realizing that the mid-term Trumpist wave petered out. It’s safe to say that whatever the final results will be, there will be sufficient, even bipartisan, support to continue the weapons flow to Ukraine for the time being.

In fact, the Ukraine war has exposed two fatal weaknesses of Putin’s regime that reflect the structural weaknesses of all such kleptocratic political orders. First, he encourages corruption down the chain of command in order not just to reward loyalty, but also to maintain leverage over his cronies. But, as any Chinese sage could have taught him, there is no level at which this stops; each level of authority mimics the strong-man at the top. This process gets accentuated in the chain of command of the armed forces, who are shielded from the evidence that things are deeply amiss until it’s too late to do much about it.

[click to continue…]

Podcast about Philosophy Illustrated (ed. by Helen de Cruz)

by Eric Schliesser on November 9, 2022

Thought experiments are tools philosophers and scientists use to investigate how things are, without actually having to go out and experiment in the real world. Philosophy Illustrated: Forty-Two Thought Experiments to Broaden your Mind (Oxford UP, 2021) presents forty-two philosophical thought experiments. Each thought experiment is illustrated by  Helen De Cruz and is summarized in one or two paragraphs, which is followed by a brief exploration of its significance. Each thought experiment also includes a longer (approximately 2-page) reflection, written by a philosopher who is a specialist in the field. Morteza Hajizadeh interviewed De Cruz and eight contributors including luminaries like Laurie Paul and Peter Singer (as well — apologies for self-promotion–folk like myself) in this podcast:

[click to continue…]

Book launch! Connected in Isolation

by Eszter Hargittai on November 8, 2022

A while back I posted that I was writing a book about Covid. Today is its official launch date!

I’m super excited about and proud of this work, because I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to capture people’s experiences during a global pandemic the way collecting data about it at the height of initial lockdowns allowed us (my research team) to do. Below the fold I explain what the book covers. In short, it has material of interest to those curious about misinformation, social media, and digital inequality.

Also, how awesome is this cover?! I can’t take credit for it, but am super grateful to its designer Ori Kometani for capturing the experiences of the time so well.

[click to continue…]