From the monthly archives:

July 2023

Sunday photoblogging: Natural History Museum

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2023

What was I doing 10 years ago? I thought I’d look through my photoarchive from 2013:

London: Natural History Museum

Against the Repugnant Conclusion

by John Q on July 30, 2023

In my previous post on utilitarianism, I started with two crucial observations.

First, utilitarianism is a political philosophy, dealing with the question of how the resources in a community should be distributed. It’s not a system of individual ethics

Second, (this shouldn’t be necessary to state, but it is), there is no such thing as utility. It’s a theoretical construct which can be used to compare different allocations of resources, not a number in people’s heads that can be measured and added up.

Failure to accept these points is at the heart of the kind of ‘longtermism’ advocated by William McAskill and, earlier, Parfit’s Repugnant conclusion. The claim here is that the objective of utilitarians should be to maximise total utility, including people who are brought into existence as a result of our decisions. In particular, that means that it is desirable to bring children into existence who will have a miserable life, provided that no one else is made worse off, and the life is not so bad that the children in question regret being born.

As well as being intuitively unappealing, this idea makes no sense in the two main contexts in which it is relevant: families deciding how many children to have, and polities deciding whether to promote pro-natalist policies[1]

[click to continue…]

As regular readers will know, CT blogger Ingrid has long been making the case for limitarianism, that is, the idea that there should be an upper limit on the amount any one person can own or consume. As Ingrid has observed, limitarianism is a constraint, rather than a complete ethical principle, so it’s important to consider how it interacts with other principles. In the case of utilitarianism, the answer is surprisingly well, at least in (using Ingrid’s terminology) this and nearby worlds. But understanding this requires a little bit of background and some arithmetic.

Shorter JQ: utilitarianism implies limitarianism. The full argument is over the field (no tricks this time, I promise).

[click to continue…]

When journalists write articles about whether countries are free or not, as with this piece in the Financial Times by Martin Wolf about India, they often rely on the ratings from Freedom House. Reading Wolf’s article, my interest was piqued concerning what Freedom House says about the post-Brexit UK, and specifically for the freedoms that it classes as “civil liberties”. Given that one recent major study — Chandran Kukathas’s Immigration and Freedom — makes a compelling argument that immigration restrictions involve extensive restrictions on everyone’s liberty, I was interested to see how this would be reflected both in Freedom House’s criteria and in its use of those criteria in country reports.

First of all then, Freedom House’s methodology. There would seem to be several relevant parts:

F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?

Do members of such groups face legal and/or de facto discrimination in areas including employment, education, and housing because of their identification with a particular group?

As I’ve discussed before on Crooked Timber, and as is extensively documented by Amelia Gentleman in her book The Windrush Betrayal, the UK’s hostile environment legislation, pioneered by then Home Secretary Theresa May, had the effect of denying to many people, particularly of Caribbean origin, employment, housing and health. Many children born to immigrants in the UK are denied access to higher education because of restrictive nationality laws.

[click to continue…]

In view of the apparent end of what passed for democracy in Israel, it’s time for me to repost my comprehensive proposal for US policy covering all aspects of relationships between the US and the Middle East. It’s over the fold.
[click to continue…]

Last September, Abe Newman, Jeremy Wallace and I had a piece in Foreign Affairs’ 100th anniversary issue. I can’t speak for my co-authors’ motivations, but my own reason for writing was vexation that someone on the Internet was wrong. In this case, it was Yuval Harari. His piece has been warping debate since 2018, and I have been grumpy about it for nearly as long. But also in fairness to Harari, he was usefully wrong – I’ve assigned this piece regularly to students, because it wraps up a bunch of common misperceptions in a neatly bundled package, ready to be untied and dissected. [click to continue…]

How dangerous is the European far-right ?

by John Q on July 25, 2023

As is usual with trends of all kinds, some recent electoral successes for far-right parties in Europe have been extrapolated into a narrative in which the rise of the far-right is just about unstoppable.

That narrative took a blow with the recent Spanish elections in which the far-right Vox party performed poorly and its coalition with the traditional conservative Popular Party failed to secure a majority. Possibly as a result, the leader of the German CDU backed away from a suggestion that his party might go into a similar coalition with the AfD. And a similar coalition government in Finland appears to be on the verge of collapse.

From the other side of the world, it’s hard to know what to make of all this, but important to try to understand it. So, I’ll toss out some thoughts and invite readers closer to the action to set me straight.

[click to continue…]

Disaster and denial

by John Q on July 23, 2023

I was looking at this picture of people (mostly tourists, it appears) fleeing massive fires in Rhodes, feeling despair about the future of the world

when I was struck by an even more despairing thought.
Almost certainly, a lot of the people in the picture are climate denialists. And even more certainly, they will mostly remain so despite this experience.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol cranes

by Chris Bertram on July 23, 2023

Bristol, Harbourside cranes

Alright, I used to perpetrate some literary criticism around this place. [Slaps wall.] Seems like I could still. This is going to be very flimsy because I’m just banging it out, because I might want some of it later, more worked out.

Over at the dying bird, Jeet Heer asks a good question: “Has anyone written about the genre of the “hippy noir”? Altman’s Long Goodbye, Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys. Are there others? An interesting little niche.”

He got good responses. Me: Philip K. Dick, Scanner Darkly, not just because it fits the bill but because of Dick himself, writing those weird letters to the FBI. He was a sad, harassed hippy noir detective. He lived the nightmare. That’s gotta count. Once you’ve got Dick, you add in others like Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music.

I’ve got further thoughts about the likes of Lethem but, first, flip it. Just as hippy noir is often good, the reason G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are invariably bad is that they are ‘hippy puncher noir’, so to speak. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on July 16, 2023


Nietzsche and Isohighertype

by John Holbo on July 16, 2023

It’s Sunday. It’s quiet. I’ll just clear the decks of my philosophy faux-infographics jokes. It’s not just trolleys. Some months back I considered it seriously:

“Nietzsche’s key design insight: complex, esoteric ideas, appreciable only by the few — perhaps only by the One! — can be conveyed via simple, conventionalised iconography, suitable for delivering simple, readily understandable ideas to the many.

Naturally, as this insight made no sense, no one had any notion what Nietzsche was on about …”

But that’s no reason why it didn’t happen! [click to continue…]

Trolley Problems and AI

by John Holbo on July 15, 2023

More AI madness! Couple of months ago there was a weird Daily Beast piece. It’s bad, but in a goofy way, causing me to say at the time ‘not today, Hal!’

But now I’m collecting op-ed-ish short writings about AI for use as models of good and bad and just plain weird writing and thinking, to teach undergrads how hard it is to write and think, so they can do better. And this one stands out as distinctively bad-weird. First the headline is goofy: “ChatGPT May Be Able to Convince You Killing a Person Is OK.” Think about that. But it’s unfair to blame the author, maybe. But read the rest. Go ahead. I’ll wait. What do you think? It’s funny that the author just assumes you should NEVER let yourself be influenced by output from Chat-GPT. Like: if Chat-GPT told you to not jump off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge? There is this failure to allow as we can, like, check claims as to whether they make sense? A bit mysterious how we do this yet we do. And ethics is a super common area in which to do this thing: so it only makes sense that you could get Chat-GPT to generate ethical claims and then people could read them and, if they make sense, you can believe them due to that. Never mind that the thing generating the prospective sensible claims is just a statistics-based mindless shoggoth.

If a shoggoth is talking trolley sense about OK killing, believe it!

Anyway, I thought it was funny. [click to continue…]

Over the fold, a piece I wrote for The Conversation. It’s focused on Australia, but includes a swipe at European advocates of a “nuclear renaissance”, the most notable of whom are Macron and (at least until his defenstration) Boris Johnson
[click to continue…]

Let me try to focus my thoughts from the previous post.

Do is as do does.

Agent-like entities are equivalent to real agents. If GPT-4 can trick people into thinking it’s a trickster, it’s a trickster. If you can mimic a chess master, you’re a chess master. It’s fun to wonder whether there will be anything it’s ‘like’ to be superintelligent AI, ending us, if it does, but that’s by the by.

Is this right? [click to continue…]