PoW: Friday highlights from philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

Hi, welcome to another issue of the PoW digest. The Journal of Medical Ethics found itself in hot water this week when it published an article in which two Australian philosophers said that ‘after-birth abortion’ should be permissible in a wide variety of cases (in fact, pretty much in any case) because new-born babies aren’t really persons. The editor of the journal, Oxford transhumanist Julian Savelescu, seemed surprised by the subsequent furore, and says the authors have since received death-threats by ‘fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society’.
OK, I’m against death-threats. But what was Savelescu thinking? ‘Afterbirth abortion’? The whole point of the young field of medical ethics is to try and give science and medicine some moral grounding and prevent it from ethical abuses like the Nazi eugenics programme – not to urge science on in that very direction. This will not do much for transhumanism’s reputation.
Here’s a piece on a better example of medical ethics – the new report from the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People, calling for a values-based approach to elderly care.
Some better news from Oxford: the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, has left £26m in his will to humanities research at Oxford, the biggest ever grant for humanities research.
The positive psychologist and social intuitionist Jonathan Haidt has a new book coming out soon on the emotional and psychological roots of different political ideologies, arguing that our brains have particular emotive buttons around issues like justice, purity, fairness and so on, which political parties need to learn to ‘push’. Here, he applies this thinking to contemporary American politics:
America is in deep fiscal trouble, and things are going to get far worse when the baby boomers retire. Normally, when a nation faces a threat to its very survival, a leader can press the shared-sacrifice button. Churchill offered Britons nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” John F. Kennedy asked us all to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against communism. These were grand national projects, and everyone was asked to pitch in.
Unfortunately, President Obama promised he would not raise taxes on anyone but the rich. He and other Democrats have also vowed to “protect seniors” from cuts, even though seniors receive the vast majority of entitlement dollars. The president is therefore in the unenviable position of arguing that we’re in big trouble and so a small percentage of people will have to give more, but most people will be protected from sacrifice. This appeal misses the shared-sacrifice button completely. It also fails to push the share-the-spoils button. When people feel that they’re all pulling on different ropes, they don’t feel entitled to a share of other people’s wealth, even when that wealth was acquired by luck.
If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness–which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what.
Interesting stuff – although Haidt seems to be putting forward a brand of ethics called emotivism – what’s right is what feels right. Or perhaps he’s really putting forward a version of rhetoric, which is the ancient art of emotion-button-pushing. But, to raise the old Platonic criticism of rhetoric: what’s to prevent anyone using such manipulative techniques for any ideology?
Ulric Neisser, pioneering psychologist and the man who reportedly coined the term ‘cognitive psychology’ in the 1960s, died last week. Here’s an NYT obituary of him, and here’s a good piece by Mind Hacks about how he came to criticise cognitive psychology’s narrow focus on the individual in favour of a more social, networks or Gestalt model of psychology. Thanks to the BPS blog for those links. And here’s an old but interesting piece on Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Didn’t know he’s a graduate of Erhard Seminars Training!
Here’s a piece where I climb on my soapbox and rail against the normalisation of violent pornography and demand that the global porn corporation chiefly responsible for this, Manwin, cleans up its act and stops making money from the glamorisation of rape. The CEO of Manwin is a young entrepreneur who apparently cares about social responsibility so I think we can get him to stop this line of business – our society shouldn’t accept it, in my view. Tweet him and challenge him to stop making money from rape-porn websites like PunishTube.
Here’s a piece where I suggest that Alain De Botton’s ‘religion for atheism’ has a class problem. Religions help the poorest and most vulnerable, while De Botton’s project seems to be closer to a retail company selling well-being to the middle classes. The School of Life, which he set up, has done wonders for making philosophy more accessible – I’m just suggesting it needs to go further.
On that topic, here’s a piece about a ‘philosophy-rapper’ in Brazil, whose mother runs a philosophy cafe in Rio’s favelas. And here’s a brief video of Richard Holloway, a former bishop and now a self-proclaimed ‘expectant agnostic’, on God’s crazy love for losers (and also on why agnostics should learn to ‘raid institutions’ for meaning, which is quite in line with De Botton’s project). I like that phrase ‘God’s crazy love for losers’. Too much self-help seems a religion purely for winners (in the material sense).
Talking of which, here’s a good piece from New Inquiry about what’s wrong with TED talks, and how they often express a sort of religious optimism in the power of social science and tech entrepreneurship to solve all the world’s problems, in fifteen minutes.
Here’s a piece where Slavoj Zizek considers The Wire.
Here’s the last thing Christopher Hitchens wrote – a nicely balanced piece on GK Chesterton.
Richard Layard is doing a talk next week on mental health as ‘the new frontier of the welfare state’. Could be interesting…could be weird! Will unemployment end up in the DSM? What would Ulric Neisser say?
That’s all for this week, see you next week,
Jules

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *