Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

Learning to live with Woke

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, or maybe try this link, note it is 3x the usual length and not easily excerpted.  Nonetheless here is one bit:

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.

And:

It drives conservatives and libertarians crazy that woke ideas often have more purchase in the private sector than in the public sector. Private universities, for example, seem “more woke” than public universities.

Still, you read it here first (or maybe not): The halls of power in Washington just aren’t that woke! They are nothing like Twitter or Google or Yale University.

Yes, many woke opponents cite the role of government and the fear of lawsuits as forces driving woke behavior and corporate attachment to wokeism. And surely they have a point. Yet in much of the corporate and nonprofit world, wokeism is not merely a reflexive defense against lawsuits. It is embraced with enthusiasm.

Wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.

And in sum:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!

China campaign of the day

The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.

In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.

The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.

Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.

They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.

But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.

Here is the full story, and I thank B. for the pointer.  As I said yesterday, I do get the point but such campaigns are not for me…

My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

A simple illustration of the benefits of feminization

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)

From Michelle Goldberg (NYT), that in a nutshell is the case for the feminization of society, which I see as bringing strongly positive net benefits for both men and women, in most but by no means all cases.

Do note that if you ever see me describing this feminization in not entirely glowing terms, that is part of my desire to give you the entire unvarnished picture, as I would with most other topics.  (The most common reading mistake you can make in these parts is to over-infer an entire mood affiliation from a single post.)

When it comes to feminization, I also think sometimes of my grade and junior high school gym teacher, Mr. O (I will omit his full name, but in fact we also called him “Mr. O”).  He acted like a tough guy, but in fact was just a…grade school gym teacher.  Nonetheless he acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Patton in a Hollywood movie.

He smoked his cigarillos (?) in that kind of plastic thing-y, like the Penguin did on the original Batman show.

If a smaller or less athletic kid took a tough spill, or was picked on by the others, he would say “Suck it up, kid!”, with little sympathy.  (If you are wondering, the worst he ever said to me was “That was a stupid foul, kid,” in a fifth-grade basketball contest.  So I didn’t bear a personal grudge against him.)

He seemed to love the game of Bombardment, as in fact I did too.  (I still remember being one of the last two men standing, but losing to Jimmy Gravelis, who caught my too-weak toss.)

He was a Roman Catholic and a veteran of the Korean War.  He seemed to stare too long at the boys entering and leaving the shower, after the exercise period of gym.  But no one really questioned this.

Even as a kid, I thought he was a bit…sick and also over the top.  In some ways though he was a good teacher and he definitely maintained discipline.  Kids were afraid of him.  And he toughened them up for the world to come.

Still, at the end of the day I am not wishing to return to the cultural ascent of Mr. O.

I would rather live in a more feminized world, even if I still miss Bombardment.  But if you are not a fan of this new arrangement…hey, “Suck it up kid!”

Addendum: You might argue that I had the best of both worlds, namely to grow up in the “tougher” society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society — maybe so!

Toward a theory of Emergent Ventures

Tony Kulesa, a biomedical venture capitalist, has a very nice new piece up about how Emergent Ventures works.  He overrates me in particular, but the overall account is quite accurate and insightful, and the piece is based on a considerable amount of detailed research.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler’s success at discovering and enabling the most talented people before anyone else notices them boils down to four components:

  1. Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest.
  2. Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores.
  3. Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics.
  4. Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.

Self-recommended!  The piece is interesting throughout, and has much social science in it.

Don’t shoot the messenger — on the value of human life

Thus, to analysts, picking one such meta-analysis may feel as hard as picking a single “best study.” This paper responds by taking the meta-analysis another step, estimating a meta-analysis (or mixture distribution) of six meta-analyses. The baseline model yields a central VSL of $7.0m, with a 90% confidence interval of $2.4m to $11.2m. The provided code allows users to easily change subjective weights on the studies, add new studies, or change adjustments for income, inflation, and latency.

Here is the new NBER paper, by H. Spencer Banzhaf.

*Against White Feminism*

In Zero Dark Thirty (and the truish story behind it), American feminism — once a movement that existed in opposition to the state, as a critique of its institutions and mores — was recast as one that served the state’s interests through any means imaginable. This identification with state interests, and the idea of going out to conquer the world with the same mindset of subjugation and domination possessed by white men, seems to have become a warped feminist goal. Put another way, white women wanted parity with white men any at any cost, including by avidly taking on the domination of Black and Brown people.

That is from the new and noteworthy Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria.  Or how about this:

Securo-feminism, thus, bound white American feminism to the neoimperial and neoliberal project of nation-building around the world — one that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson had articulated in his history of “Angloglobalization,” proposing that young Americans should be taught to go overseas and transform other nations in their own image much as Britain had done.  Caught in its fevers, American feminists did not question loudly enough the wisdom of exporting feminism through bombs and drones.

Or:

White feminists in the colonial era were all about spreading their civilized ways, but neo-colonial white feminists want to illustrate their courage and compassion — often while providing moral subsidy for cruelties inflicted in feminism’s name. Times may have changed, but the commitment of whiteness to extracting value wherever it can — and dominating the narrative to frame this extraction as benevolence — persists.

Recommended, sort of.  And here is the author with more detail on “Securo-feminism.”

People want predictability in their moral partners

Across six studies (N = 1988 US residents and 81 traditional people of Papua), participants judged agents acting in sacrificial moral dilemmas. Utilitarian agents, described as opting to sacrifice a single individual for the greater good, were perceived as less predictable and less moral than deontological agents whose inaction resulted in five people being harmed. These effects generalize to a non-Western sample of the Dani people, a traditional indigenous society of Papua, and persist when controlling for homophily and notions of behavioral typicality. Notably, deontological agents are no longer morally preferred when the actions of utilitarian agents are made to seem more predictable. Lastly, we find that peoples’ lay theory of predictability is flexible and multi-faceted, but nevertheless understood and used holistically in assessing the moral character of others. On the basis of our findings, we propose that assessments of predictability play an important role when judging the morality of others.

Here is the full piece by Martin Harry Turpin, et.al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What should I ask Amia Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, her forthcoming book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is already making a big splash.  Here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page:

Amia Srinivasan (born 1984) is an American philosopher, specialising in political philosophy, epistemology and metaphilosophy. Since January 2020, she has been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford.

Srinivasan was born…in Bahrain to Indian parents and later lived in New York. She studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale University. This was followed by postgraduate Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She completed her DPhil in 2014 with a thesis titled The Fragile Estate: Essays on Luminosity, Normativity and Metaphilosophy.

…She is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and a contributing editor of the London Review of Books.

You can access some of her works here.  So what should I ask?

Why has the Indian diaspora been so successful?

Dwarkesh writes to me:

Why do you think the Indian diaspora has been so successful? Just selection of the best immigrants from a large pool of candidates or something else too?

Yes, there are plenty of Indians, and surely that matters, but I see several others factors at work:

1. The Indian diaspora itself is large, estimated at 18 million and the single largest diaspora in the world.

2. A significant portion of the better-educated Indians are hooked into English-language networks early on, including through the internet.  The value of this connection has been rising due to the rising value of the internet itself.  That is a big reason to be bullish on the Indian diaspora.

3. India has been growing rapidly enough so that people understand the nature and value of progress, yet the country remains poor enough that further progress seems urgent.

4. Many Indian parents seem intent on expecting a great deal from their children.  The value of this cannot be overemphasized.  This effect seems to be stronger in India than in say Indonesia.

5. There is especially positive selection for Indians coming to America.  You can’t just run across a border, instead many of the ways of getting here involve some specialization in education and also technical abilities.  Virtually all migrated in legal manners, and here is some interesting data on how the various cohorts of Indians arriving in America differed by wave.

6. More speculatively, I see a kind of conceptual emphasis and also a mental flexibility resulting from India’s past as a mixing ground for many cultures.  Perhaps some of this comes from the nature of Hinduism as well, even for non-Hindu Indians (just as American Jews are somewhat “Protestant”).  Indians who move into leadership roles in U.S. companies seem to do quite well making a very significant cultural leap.  I cannot think of any other emerging economy where the same is true to a comparable extent.  In any case, the intellectual capital embedded in Indian culture is immense.

7. Those Indians who leave seem to retain strong ties to the home country, which in turn helps others with their subsequent upward mobility, whether in India or abroad.  In contrast, Russians who leave Russia seem to cut their ties to a higher degree.

8. I feel one of the hypotheses should involve caste, but I don’t have a ready claim at hand.

Here is the take of Stephen Manallack.  Here is Times of India.  (And by the way, here is Shruti’s piece on India’s 1991 reforms, not irrelevant to the diaspora.)

What else?

Why humans will perish rather than become grabby aliens

It turns out that Homo Sapiens is not all that different from other, early proto-human species, such as Neanderthals.  They are the “closest things to us.”  Denisovans, etc.  We killed them off.  (We also are likely to mostly kill off chimpanzees, zoos and research labs excluded.)  Therefore the best prediction is that we kill us off too.  The other species like us died through mass violence at the hands of humans.  We don’t have many data points, but they all seem to end the same way.

You might think a) “we are really good at killing off other species,” rather than b) “we are really good at killing things off.”  Therein lies some hope.  Signs of cross-national solidarity thus should make you much more optimistic about the future.

How’s that African vaccine distribution program coming?

The wisdom of Ilya Shapiro

Civil-Rights Law as Lawyer Full-Employment Act The data that Eric Kaufmann presents and explains about ideological prejudice, social intolerance, and “affective polarization” (“Political Discrimination as Civil-Rights Struggle,” July 12) are as disturbing as they are depressing. Progressive authoritarianism is a growing problem, particularly among young elites and thus at the commanding heights of business, culture, and education. But the solution Kaufmann proposes – expanding anti-discrimination law to cover political belief – is worse than the disease.

There’s a reason why legal protections for ideology are currently found only in places such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.: They’re progressive innovations, one more barnacle on the crusty hull of employment law. Each time a new protected category is added to civil-rights laws that were originally enacted to break Jim Crow – talk about “systemic racism”! – it further burdens employers and enriches lawyers. Indeed, Kaufmann’s proposal is a lawyer full-employment act, with easily foreseeable litigation about whether a particular ideological belief is a “bona fide occupational qualification.”

“Legislators and courts would need to define terms tightly,” Kaufmann allows, but how confident are we that they would, or will long continue to do so? If discrimination “on the basis of sex” can be read 50 years later to include sexual orientation and gender identity – see last year’s Bostock v. Clayton County, which did just that to federal employment law – then even the tightest statutory definitions will loosen over time. In other words, the idea that narrow exemptions for political parties (what about think tanks?) from a ban on political discrimination won’t eventually be read to allow forced adherence to corporate diversity/equity/inclusion statements is laughable. And then we’re back where we started, except with more billable hours.

That is his letter to National Review, the response of Kaufmann can be found at the same link.