About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther review

(Note: mild spoilers in what follows. There is nothing that people who are interested in Black Panther won't already know.)

First, I completely enjoyed Black Panther. I thought it had almost the look and feel of a Star Wars movie - rather than a typical superhero movie - with its depiction of dynastic struggle, shaky and shifting alliances, and advanced weaponry and transportation, all set mainly in a series of vast, visually stunning landscapes and high-technology cityscapes.

The evident theme, as so often in science fiction movies and superhero movies, relates to the use of power - in this case technological power - whether to protect yourself, to help others, or to overcome and oppress others. The latter might be motivated by personal ambition or by political zealotry.

Science fiction and related genres return to this again and again. Indeed, the justifiable and unjustifiable uses of great power provide the key theme of these genres. That is so all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's as true of the work of H.G. Wells as the work of E.E. "Doc" Smith.

For X-Men fans, the main antagonists of Black Panther had something of a Xavier-versus-Magneto vibe in what they, respectively, sought to do with the extraordinary power available to them. At all times, they acted against a familiar background of ongoing injustice on a very large scale.

(All X-Men fans know that Xavier and Magneto are themselves often interpreted, with just a touch of revisionism, as analogues for someone like Martin Luther King vs someone more radical like Malcolm X ... or the Black Panthers if it comes to that. Note, however, that the Black Panther Party came into existence some three years after the creation of the X-Men, and a few months after the creation of the Black Panther as a Marvel character. Its founders were inspired by, among things, the writings of Malcolm X.)

T'Challa, the Black Panther, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in mid-1966, and there was some controversy at the time. It was a big deal, back then, for Marvel to create a black superhero. It made a strong political statement in the circumstances of the mid-60s, though some questioned why he had to be an African king, not a more grounded African American character, such as the later Luke Cage (who dates from the 1970s).

Similar questions will doubtless be raised this time, and they'll merit discussion. Meanwhile, Black Panther is an interesting and spectacular movie with large, perennial, themes about power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry, themes that inevitably speak of, and to - even as they are by no means confined to - American race relations.

What do I mean by that? In current circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, any production from Hollywood that deals with the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry will be open to interpretation as at least allegorizing American race relations, and as addressing them in some way. Race need not be thematically explicit, as it is in Black Panther. Thus, the mutants of the X-Men mythos, including the current TV show The Gifted, are, in part, stand-ins for persecuted people of colour.

At the same time, the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and resulting political zealotry are not confined to racial issues. It follows that a movie such as Black Panther can reference specifically racial issues, yet have a resonance far beyond those issues. It thus connects with the rich legacy of narrative, especially SF narrative, that engages with questions about the responsible uses of power.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cordelia Fine on the James Damore case

I'm bookmarking this long article about James Damore in The Guardian from back in November 2017, because I want to return to it. When I initially read the article, I was especially struck by the remarks attributed to Cordelia Fine, who has, for some years, been a patient and unrelenting critic of much sex-difference research. She sees this research as scientifically dubious and socially dangerous insofar as it undermines feminist efforts to advocate for gender equality.

While Professor Fine could be expected to criticise Damore's views on sex differences in interests and personality traits - and indeed, she does so - it's notable that she adds that his summary of sex-difference research in his now famous memo was "more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature" and that some of his ideas were quite familiar to her and not even especially controversial. As quoted, she goes on to say, "So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him."

Here, Fine is showing a level of common decency and reasonableness - and is expressing a degree of compassion for an intellectual opponent - that is all too often missing from public debate about controversial issues. Too often, the response is not only to distrust any message that contradicts our prior beliefs and commitments, but to go even further. The response, that is, is often to reject, demonise, and attempt to harm the messenger. Cordelia Fine deserves praise for taking a different approach to a message that clearly goes against some of her core attitudes and beliefs.

My purpose here is to praise Fine's approach (at least on this occasion) to public controversy, not to defend the substance of Damore's memo. You can go here for one even-handed attempt (by Jonathan Haidt) to assess its merits or otherwise. My larger concern is not with the science of sex differences but with the widespread tendency to shame opponents in public, and to call for them to be fired (as Damore was fired from his job at Google in August 2017). This is, of course, something that I've been objecting to for a long time now.

Edit, 17 February 2017: The National Labor Relations Board has since publicly released a memorandum of advice from its legal counsel on James Damore's application to the NLRB to consider his case. The advice memorandum itself strikes me as extraordinary, claiming that Damore's dispassionate and reasoned discussion of the science of sex-related psychological differences was comparable to such blatant stereotyping and hostility in the workplace as referring to "jealous ass ghetto people"; the memorandum even claims that parts of Damore's memo amounted to sexual harassment, notwithstanding that the content was entirely clinical and analytical rather than in any way sexualised. That said, any employer enjoys a very broad discretion under American law to dismiss employees for conduct that could potentially cause workplace disharmony. It was always doubtful, therefore, that Damore could have won this case or even that the NLRB genuinely had jurisdiction to deal with it. I also have doubts as to whether other legal action commenced by Damore since his dismissal from employment can succeed.

For all that, the reasoning in the NLRB advice memorandum is troubling, and it appears to me to be wrong in fact and law, even if the legality of Google's action in firing Damore could have been upheld, all things considered, on the basis of less controversial reasoning.

University of Miami fills its academic chair in the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics

This process was delayed by a whole year, for reasons that are unknown to me. However, the University of Miami has finally filled its high-profile professorial chair in atheism, humanism, and secular ethics. The successful candidate was Professor Anjan Chakravarrty. He starts at the beginning of July, and I wish him good luck with the mission associated with this job.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The history of "human dignity"

This article discusses a new edited book on the mysterious concept of human dignity (the article is by the book's editor, Remy Debes). The book, Dignity: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

I spent most of my life until deep into adulthood never encountering the idea of dignity in this sense, though of course any acquaintance with Kantian ethics soon reveals its importance in the tradition of modern moral philosophy. Prior to studying Kant at a relatively late stage of my life, I was socialised into the commonsense morality of my local culture, just like everyone else, but nothing I encountered ever relied on dignity in the sense of a special kind of inherent moral worth beyond price or quantification. (I did, of course, encounter other usages of the word "dignity", such as the idea of a certain admirable or noble calmness of demeanour, especially when maintained in difficult circumstances.) Debes presents dignity as a cornerstone moral concept in Western morality, but I find that a very doubtful claim. I also doubt very much that the relevant sense of dignity is the ordinary one that most people know - rather, it is quite esoteric.

At least in my experience, ordinary people (by which I mean people who are not trained specifically in academic fields such theology, moral philosophy, and human rights law) may seldom or never encounter the word "dignity" in Debes's sense. They are more likely to have been taught to avoid certain antisocial dispositions of character (such as dishonesty, cowardice, cruelty, arrogance, and propensity to violence), to avoid certain kinds of harmful conduct (such as murder, theft, rape, physical assault, and telling damaging lies about others), and to develop certain moral virtues (such as honesty, courage, kindness, a certain level of modesty not inconsistent with quiet pride, and a willingness to settle disputes peaceably).

I don't think this is something odd about my upbringing, however odd that may have been in any other way: I've never heard dignity (in the relevant sense) mentioned very much, if at all, in everyday discussion in any country that I have visited, and nor do I encounter the idea very much in literature or popular culture. Talk of "dignity", or "human dignity", in the relevant sense is language used only by certain kinds of people - those who are influenced either by Kant or by some kind of theological morality. The whole idea is explicitly rejected by utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse.

Still, the concept of human dignity does loom large in some areas of contemporary moral discussion, particularly in bioethics and in much of the human rights discourse. It's a slippery and sometimes frustrating concept. When I get a bit of time, I'll be fascinated to read up on its history.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Locus Awards 2018 - Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination nominated

Locus magazine's annual awards covering the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, are now up for votes (voting closes on 15 April). Since this is determined by a vote of the public (with double weighting for Locus subscribers), it will be largely a popularity contest. Nonetheless, it's pleasing to have come so far as to have Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination listed on the ballot in the "non-fiction" category. If you've had a chance to read the book, and assuming you enjoyed it or found it useful, do consider voting. If you look at the other names on the ballot in the category, I'd say that I'm a definite outsider, which is fair enough given what the others all accomplished to get there. Still, you never know what will happen, and anyway it's an honour even to be on the same list as some of those people.