Category: Philosophy

*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.

Elizabeth Bowen speaks to her lover

“Take it from one of the best living novelists that people’s personalities are not interesting,” she said in a dry voice unlike the voice she uses with me as a rule.  “Except,” she added, when you are in love with them.”

And more from the diary of Charles, the lover:

Would I ever have fallen for her if it hadn’t been for her books?  I very much doubt it.  But now I can’t separate her from her literary self.  It’s as if the woman I ‘love’ were always accompanied by a companion spirit infinitely more exciting and more poetic and more profound than E herself…When it comes to writing, well I had a letter from her the other day so blunderingly expressed, so repetitive, that the least of the characters in one of her books would never have been guilty of it.

That is from Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries, Their obsessional, thirty-year love affair.

My Conversation with Alexander the Grate

Here is the audio and transcript, recorded outside in SW Washington, D.C.  And no, that is not a typo, he does call himself “Alexander the Grate,” his real name shall remain a secret.  Here is the event summary:

Alexander the Grate has spent 40 years — more than half of his life — living on the streets (and heating grates) of Washington, DC. He prefers the label NFA (No Fixed Address) rather than “homeless,” since in his view we’re all a little bit homeless: even millionaires are just one catastrophe away from losing their mansions. It’s a life that certainly comes with many challenges, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the immense cultural riches of the capital: he and his friends have probably attended more lectures, foreign films, concerts, talks, and tours at local museums than many of its wealthiest denizens. The result is a perspective as unique as the city itself.

Alexander joined Tyler to discuss the little-recognized issue of “toilet insecurity,” how COVID-19 affected his lifestyle, the hierarchy of local shelters, the origins of the cootie game, the difference between being NFA in DC versus other cities, how networking helped him navigate life as a new NFA, how the Capitol Hill Freebie Finders Fellowship got started, why he loves school field trip season, his most memorable freebie food experience, the reason he isn’t enthusiastic about a Universal Basic Income, the economic sword of Damocles he sees hanging over America, how local development is changing DC, his design for a better community shelter, and more.

And:

And:

Recommended, you won’t find many podcast episodes like this one.  It is noteworthy that Alexander has a better and bigger vocabulary than the median CWT guest.  Also, this is one episode where listening and reading are especially different, due to the ambient sounds, Alexander’s comments on the passing trains, and so on — parts are Beckettesque!

Paul Bloom in The New Yorker on discounting

And also on my Stubborn Attachments, here is part of his discussion:

Cowen, to my mind, glosses over the problem of diminishing returns. Suppose that our prosperity increases a hundredfold. Life would be better, but would our happiness also increase by a multiple of a hundred? After a certain point, it might make sense to worry less about growth. Perhaps the most privileged of us are close to that point now. But these things can be hard to judge. The Babylonian kings might have thought that they were living the best possible lives, not realizing that, in the future, even everyday schmoes would be wiser and more pain-free, living longer, eating better, and travelling more.

I agree with the “everyday schmoes” point, if only because we die at what are still fairly young ages, or may suffer from mental health problems along the way, not to mention pain, as mentioned.  But let us say society is at the point where most people live to the possible maximum, mental health problems have been cured, and pain is fixed too.  In this unlikely society, human rights would matter much more.  If happiness really is broadly fixed, we can welcome the ascent of deontology.  One implication of this is that if you fight poverty in poorer countries, you are making some form of Kantianism more true along the way.  Think of deontology as a luxury good, or alternatively if everything is doomed to end tomorrow you also should respect rights more, because there are fewer welfare gains from violating them.  So I suppose that is a U-shaped function for deontology with respect to wealth, at least if the far left side of the x axis is expressed in drastic enough terms.

Via Barry Brolley.

*Syndromes and a Century* (with spoilers, but the movie is not about suspense)

By Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this film pushes the idea that modernity is the truly strange phenomenon, not ancient religion or what we like to call pre-modern times.  The pre-modern is represented by the two monks in their orange robes, and their direct, down-to-earth manner.  The supposedly modern is represented by various doctors in their white suit coats, which look suspiciously like the robes of the monks.  Only that the orange is much more pleasant.  The monks are repeatedly puzzled by their interactions with the modernized Thai medical establishment, which, as it turns out, has taken ritual to new and unprecedentedly baroque and artificial heights.

The contemporary world is shown in ever stranger terms, from a variety of perspectives, whether the subject be power plants or artificial limbs, monks flying a toy spaceship, or a pipe sucking in steam, shaped suspiciously like an elephant’s trunk, albeit without the dignity.  The ritual dance closing the film — held in park with a boom box and people in shorts — seems senseless and without meaning.

And yes, the contemporary world is more rationalistic in a variety of ways, but why not look at the true human fundamentals — life and death — as represented by the world of medicine, to see if that rationalism holds up?  Alas.

Is there any director better at making you rethink the modern world and see its fundamental strangeness than Apichatpong Weerasethakul?  You need to try Uncle Boonmee too.

I saw this one with Nabeel!  And on the big screen (we rented out a theater).  And he sent me this interesting review of the movie.

How do you ask good questions?

Ryan writes to me:

Consuming the different variety of media in which you publish ideas, I’ve noticed that you pose very high quality questions. For me, high quality questions have a Heideggerian quality insofar as they open a space for exploration, i.e. a concept, category, path of thought has specific affordances that were merely dormant up until the performative moment of that question being posed.
Do you have an instinctual knack for posing high-quality questions or is there a conscious method employed when you engage with ideas.
Are you aware of any interesting articles/books exploring the nature of questions and how to improve asking questions. Lots written about answering questions; very little, so far as I can tell, about asking questions.

I have a few tips for asking better questions:

1. Highly specific questions are better on average.

2. It is often better to preface a question with a confession of some sort, or with information from yourself. That sets a standard for the respondent. Set that standard high!

3. Demonstrate credibly that you are truly listening and that you care about the answer.

4. With any possible question, ask yourself in advance: can the person being asked the question respond too easily in a vague and not very useful way? “Why did you write a book about Napoleon? Well, let me tell you, French history always fascinated me.” etc. If that is the kind of slop you might get back in response, try making the question more pointed or more specific.

5. High status people get better answers than do low status people. So be high status. Or at least credibly pretend to be high status.

6. I have enjoyed Gregory Stock’s The Book of Questions.

7. You might say “listen to other interviewers.” Well, maybe, but perhaps not too much? They will encourage you, by default, to ask the same questions that everyone else does. And too many of the sources available to you are mega-famous people who are getting by using their fame to boost the significant of their questions. (Anything Oprah might ask me would be interesting per se.) So use this standard tip sparingly and with caution.

8. Any questions about all this?

The origins of Wokeism

My latest Bloomberg column considers one factor (of many), here is an excerpt:

The male-female imbalance in academic life should be treated as a kind of emergency. But the institutions that address it are slow and bureaucratic.

Now enter the philosophy of wokeism. One way to think of the woke is as a bunch of people who scream about various injustices. But sometimes they don’t have a good plan to address a particular imbalance — and along the way they can inflict a good deal of unjustified damage, for instance by canceling people who make the wrong remarks about gender imbalance or other issues.

These and other criticisms of the woke may well be correct. Still, at the end of the day it has to be recognized that an unresponsive society will generate a lot of unproductive (and unresponsive) screamers. So simply dissecting the weaknesses of woke tactics and arguments misses the point. When practical solutions do not seem to exist, many people will resort to screaming.

This leads to the conclusion that wokeness won’t be defeated as an ideology until there is a more convincing and practical vision of how to undo institutional sclerosis. When that vision comes, it may not be so closely allied with wokeness, which is not excessively concerned with effective administration and incentive compatibility.

And this:

Sometimes it even seems that woke forces are effective. Recently some major museums have announced that they are sending back their highly valuable West African bronze sculptures to their countries of origin. Many of those sculptures were stolen by British colonial occupiers, and their restoration would reunite those countries with a significant part of their cultural heritage. This justified change would probably not have occurred without pressure from wokeism.

One underlying theme of the column is that the defects of the Woke — such as excess rigidity — are closely allied to the defects of the society they are protesting against.

John Stuart Mill on the English

From causes which might be traced in the history and development of English society and government, the general habit and practice of the English mind is compromise.  No idea is carried out to more than a small portion of its legitimate consequences.  Neither by the generality of our speculative thinkers, nor in the practice of the nation, are the principles which are professed ever thoroughly acted upon; something always stops the application half way.  This national habit has consequences of very various character, of which the following is one.  It is natural to minds governed by habit (which is the character of the English more than of any other civilized people) that their tastes and inclinations become accommodated to their habitual practice; and as in England no principle is ever fully carried out, discordance between principles and practice has come to be regarded, not only as the natural, but as the desirable state.  This is no an epigram, or a paradox, but a sober description of the tone of sentiment commonly found in Englishman.  They never feel themselves safe unless they are living under the shadow of some convention fiction — some agreement to say one thing and mean another.

That is from Mill’s Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1848.

My Conversation with Elijah Millgram

Elijah is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Elijah joined Tyler to discuss Newcomb’s paradox, the reason he doesn’t have an opinion about everything, the philosophy of Dave Barry, style and simulation theory, why philosophers aren’t often consulted about current events, his best stories from TA-ing for Robert Nozick, the sociological correlates of knowing formal logic, the question of whether people are more interested in truth or being interesting, philosophical cycles, what makes Nietzsche important today, the role that meaning can play in a person’s personality and life, Mill on Bentham, the idea of true philosophy as dialogue, the extent to which modern philosophers are truly philosophical, why he views aesthetics as critical to philosophy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Newcomb’s paradox: Are you a one-boxer or two-boxer, and why?

MILLGRAM: I’ve never been able to take a stand on that, mostly because there’s this moment in Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Newcomb paradox. Should we pause to tell the audience . . .

COWEN: No, no. This is not for them; this is for us. They can Google —

MILLGRAM: Oh, this is for us? OK. Nozick said, “Look, here’s what happens when you get a class,” or not even a class. People talk about Newcomb’s paradox. Some people end up having one view and some people end up having the other view. Each side has the argument for their own view, but they don’t have the explanation of what’s wrong with the other argument. Then Nozick says — and I think this is absolutely on target — “It doesn’t help to just repeat your own argument more slowly and more loudly.”

Since I don’t know what’s wrong with the — whichever other argument it is, I don’t have a view.

COWEN: If you don’t have a view, doesn’t that by default put you close to the one-box position? It means you don’t consider the dominance principle self-evident because you’re not sure that in fact you’re getting more by opting for the two boxes. Quantum mechanics is weird; aliens may be weirder yet. You don’t know what to do. Why not just take the slightly smaller prize and opt for one box? Not with extreme conviction, but you would be a default, mildly agnostic one-boxer.

MILLGRAM: Who knows what I would do if somebody turned up and gave me the . . .

But let me say something a little bit to the meta level, and then I’ll speak to the view that I would be a one-boxer. I live in a world where I feel disqualified from a privilege that almost everybody around me has. People are supposed to have opinions about all kinds of things. They have opinions about politics, and they have opinions about sports teams, and they have opinions about who knows what.

I’m in the very peculiar position of being in a job where I’m paid to have opinions. I feel that I can’t have opinions unless I’ve worked for them and I can back them up, and that means that unless I’ve done my homework, unless I have an argument for the opinion, I don’t have it — so I don’t.

Now, going back from the meta level, kind of one level down: let’s stop and think about what’s built into the . . .

When you explain dominance to a classroom, you say, “Look, here are the different options you have,” and I guess the options are used to the column, “and here are the different states of the world, and you can see that for each state of the world this option does better than that option. So you should take . . .”

There’s a lot built into that already. For example, that the world is carved up into these different — the state space is carved up, and your option space is carved up, and you don’t get to rethink, recharacterize — the characterization of the things that you do is already given to you, and it’s fixed. It’s an idealization.

Until the situation arrived and I had a chance to face it and think about it, I wouldn’t know whether to accept that idealization. I know that sounds really coy, but the principled view is that since I don’t have an argument, I don’t have an opinion.

Recommended.  And here is Elijah’s home page and research.