In the face of an increase in shootings and terrorist attacks, Erdogan’s “cleansing” operations, the Brexit, an on-going refugee crisis and numerous other worrying developments, a post about moral progress might seem entirely out of place. Who would believe that there could be anything like that? Isn’t it obvious that human beings are unable to learn from history, that every hope that the world could become more just and peaceful in the long run is in vain? Don’t the recent developments show clearly that multiculturalism cannot work, that real integration is an illusion, that religious dogmas are stronger than arguments and that humans are unable to change their behaviour so as to stop global warming? Despite all reasons for being sceptical, some philosophers still firmly believe in the possibility for us humans to progress morally. In this post, I argue that we ought not to give up our hopes for a more humane, just and peaceful world, and explore ways in which moral progress could be achieved.
I just finished teaching a new, final year undergraduate course on ‘Global Justice and Climate Change’. This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to design and teach a course based on my own area of research and in many ways it seems to have been a success. I’ve struggled a bit throughout, though, with figuring out how to think about what I’m doing and what I should perhaps be trying to achieve.
Peer-reviewing articles for journals is one of the important professional contributions made by academics. But it can seem an unusual exercise when undertaken for the first time and it is a difficult art form to master. There are a number of extended resources online with useful guidance, from academics, editors, publishers, and the American Philosophical Association, and a set of links to discussions on aspects of peer-review on various blogs. Here I offer seven quick tips that are designed to help make a review useful to both an editor and an author:
Recently, I was asked a question I have been asked on a few occasions: ‘what books should I recommend to a friend who has never read any political philosophy or ethics, but is interested in taking a look at the subject?’ I reply to this question with assorted recommendations, but what I recommend almost certainly varies depending on my mood, what I am currently researching/teaching, and, most significantly, how my memory is functioning in that moment. My recommendations are also limited to the list of books that I have read. To rectify these deficiencies, I write this post with two aims in mind: first, to identify some of the books I often recommend and garner suggestions from others about suitable books; and, second, thereby, to provide a list of texts to refer people when they ask the question above.
There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised was behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.
The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?
In a memorable sequence in his book, Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy depicts the young dog, “George’s son” who works for the farmer, Oak, as a sheepdog. The main job of George’s son is to run after the sheep to make sure that they stay together and do not run away. Tragically, however, the sheepdog being under the impression that the more he runs after the sheep, the better, one day drives all the sheep off a cliff. George’s son, thinking that he has done an exceptional job, returns happily to Oak, who is now left with nothing. Hardy writes that George’s son met the “untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise. “
|Photo by Goska Smierzchalska / CC BY-NC 2.0|
Content note: this post contains a discussion of sexual violence and rape.
Perhaps some of the hostility to content notes/trigger warnings comes from a lack of knowledge about how they could work. People seem to imagine them as these big intrusive and ugly warnings. I think an actual example of a content note shows us how far from the truth this is:
Course Content Note: At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
Though much of the online discussion has focused on syllabuses and student seminars, I think it is important to recognise that the same arguments also apply to seminars among professional academics. I think we academics sometimes falsely assume that the standards and principles we apply to student and non-academic discussions do not apply to our own professional practices. An academic giving a paper or a lecture which includes discussions that are potentially triggering should give attendees advance notice of this. This allows people to prepare themselves and not have it sprung upon them, and even the opportunity to avoid coming at all if they feel they are not able to cope with the discussion that day. Of course this does not address what is said during the ensuing question period. It does not stop another academic from insensitively using an example of rape or sexual violence when they respond to the speaker. Content notes and trigger warnings cannot (and are not supposed) to cover every possibility. To address that we could start by educating academics about what its like to be a victim of rape and hear examples of rape used casually in philosophy seminars.
Some have argued that “life doesn’t come with a trigger warning” and tried to suggest that using them in any situation is therefore pointless. While we may not be able to change everything, seminars are a small sphere of life that we have the power to make less hostile and more welcoming.
1 Content notes and trigger warnings are frequently confused. The difference is that “Trigger warnings are about attempting to identify common triggers for panic attacks and related experiences and tagging media for the benefit of people who find it helpful to be warned when media contains this material. Content notes are simply flags with information about content, to be used at the discretion of the person who encounters them.”↩
Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.
Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.
Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
As someone who considers themself on the political left, I am generally sympathetic to the use of industrial action. However, in this case, I am yet to be persuaded. What do you think?