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).

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - Magneto and Rachel Grey invade Attilan

I just plain like this panel, with art by Andrea Broccardo, from "Civil War II: X-Men 3" - in the current X-Men tie-in series to the current Civil War II series from Marvel. Here, Magneto and Rachel Grey take it on themselves to invade Attilan, home of the Inhumans.

Magneto is now more an anti-hero than an outright villain, and Rachel is not really villainous even though she has a mean streak. But they'll do for today's purpose.

[If you're not a fan of all the arcane X-Men continuity, you need to know that Rachel Grey is the time-travelling daughter of Jean Grey and Cyclops, from a dystopian future. She has a similar set of powers to her mother, but something of an edgier personality, having endured a future Holocaust-like situation. Magneto is, of course, in the comics, a Holocaust survivor who has been rejuvenated to his physical prime. I like the fact that Cullen Bunn, the writer of the tie-in series, has delved into old continuity to recall that these two always got along. The decades of layered continuity inevitably mean that casual comics readers will find a lot of stuff puzzling ... like why Rachel Grey seems older than the current version of Jean Grey running around. But oh well... Meanwhile, I simply like this well-composed, classic style panel.]

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - Celebrating the demise of Gawker

With Gawker having finally been destroyed this week, here is a link to my ABC Religion and Ethics Portal article on the subject of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit. Published back in June, the piece is entitled "Threat to Free Speech? Why I Don't Stand with Gawker."

A large sample:
Governments can restrict the exchange of opinions and ideas, and they frequently strive to do so. Agencies of the State wield frightening powers, including the power to imprison and sometimes even the power to kill, and this should make us especially anxious to keep them under control through public sentiment, constitutional restrictions, and whatever other effective means we can find. We should be very wary of government censorship.

In fact, I go further in opposing campaigns to suppress opinion and discussion through the use of "merely" social power. Boycotts, public shamings, the practice no-platforming speakers and campaigns to have individuals fired for their opinions can all be used to disrupt even quite powerful opponents. Worse, they can intimidate less-powerful opponents into silence.

Perhaps these tactics cannot be prohibited by law: we may run into unwanted paradoxes if we try to ban certain kinds of speech - such as calls for boycotts - because they are used to punish other kinds of speech. All the same, we should criticise the contemporary tactics of suppression and punishment, and we can resist the temptation to indulge in them ourselves.

All in all, there are good reasons to support the free exchange of opinions and ideas, and to resist state censorship. But does this entail that we must defend all speech, no matter how extreme, that invades the privacy of individuals? Must we view Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, with its initial courtroom verdict in his favour, as an unacceptable kind of state censorship?

When we're thinking about such issues, it can be helpful to wonder what the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty (1859), might have thought. Mill was not an infallible seer, but his work remains useful for debates about individual liberty and freedom of speech.

Mill was concerned with what he called a "liberty of thought and discussion" about topics of general importance. As he well understood, the absence of state censorship of opinions is one requirement to achieve a society with this kind of liberty. Thus, he opposed governmental censorship, but he would also have opposed social actions aimed at suppressing disliked opinions, such as organised boycotting of people for their social, moral, religious, or political views.

At the same time, it's clear enough from Mill's body of work that he did not expect us to put up with damaging lies about individual citizens. Almost certainly, he would not have supported Gawker-style violations of personal privacy.

In my own case, I advocate the legal right and practical ability of artists, authors and ordinary people to express themselves frankly and fearlessly. I worry whenever I see ideas, opinions, and cultural productions (such as literary and artistic works) interpreted unfairly or censoriously. This distorts and hinders, rather than assists, the search for truth.

Whenever I can, I'm happy to be charitable, but I can't find much to say in Gawker's favour. Gawker Media and its chic defenders cannot seriously claim that gutter-level journalism, such as publication of the Hogan sex tape, needs protection to enable liberty of thought and discussion. No intellectual or cultural purpose was advanced by publishing the tape. Instead, Gawker engaged in a hurtful, damaging, contemptuous, and unjustified attack on an individual. Even free speech advocates can support narrowly framed laws to protect us from the worst such attacks.

Legal solutions frequently have problems: laws that restrict speech are often plagued by vagueness, scope creep and expansive interpretations. But even when the law is not a good solution - which remains to be seen with cases like Hogan's - we can repudiate organisations that engage in serious kinds of defamation or brutal invasions of personal privacy. Our liberty of thought and discussion does not require these smears and invasions, and it may even be hindered by them.
And as a bonus, in case you missed it - my piece at The Conversation, republished on this blog - about an earlier Gawker disaster.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Currently in Melbourne!

I'm currrently in Melbourne, staying at the delightful home of old friends Alison Kennedy and Tony Kuhn - and I plan to catch up with a fair assortment of friends in the next few days, although I wish I could stay longer and meet up with everyone. Do forgive me if you live in Melbourne and I don't get to see you before I head home next week. Having lived in Melbourne for over 30 years (from early 1979 to late 2009), I have many, many friends here, and I always feel at home when I visit.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I plan to celebrate in style.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I have joined the board of the Journal of Posthuman Studies

I'm wary these days about taking on new responsibilities as I'm pretty overstretched (and running behind with some projects). In fact, I've been trying to cut down on things to get it all a bit more under control. But I'm pleased to have joined the editorial board of the Journal of Posthuman Studies. This new journal has an impressive board and an important brief. It describes itself as follows:
The Journal of Posthuman Studies is a fully peer reviewed, multidisciplinary journal developed to analyse what it is to be human in an age of rapid technological, scientific, cultural and social evolution. As the boundaries between human and "the other", technological, biological and environmental, are eroded and perceptions of normalcy are challenged, they have generated a range of ethical, philosophical, cultural, and artistic questions that this journal seeks to address. Drawing on theory from critical posthumanism and the normative reflections of transhumanism, it encourages constructive but rigorously critical dialogue through discussion papers, forums, and a carefully curated balance of research articles. The journal publishes papers on issues such as the consequences of enhancement, especially bioenhancement, transhumanist, and posthumanist accounts of “the human,” and any and all ways in which they impact culture and society. The journal encourages submissions from a range of disciplines such as: philosophy, sociology, literary studies, cultural studies, critical theory, media studies, bioethics, medical ethics, anthropology, religious studies, disability studies, gender studies, queer studies, critical animal studies, environmental studies, and the visual arts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

One year ago at Cogito: "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate"

In case you missed it, this post at Cogito on "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate" appeared just on a year ago and I never did follow up in the way I foreshadowed at the end. Perhaps I should still do so, but it's one of those topics where I hesitate. It's so emotionally explosive - with very passionate views on all sides - that civil discussion is almost impossible, any factual errors will be pounced on viciously, and disagreement is likely to be interpreted as showing a morally corrupt character. If you want to make a genuine intellectual contribution, as opposed to engaging in noisy activism for whichever policies and viewpoints you already favour, this is an issue where you need to be very careful indeed.

Sample (slightly edited for flow):
Responses by philosophers run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from the philosophy blog Daily Nous to discuss this topic are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers - or other people - are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.

As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.