Are Big Questions a Good Idea?

by Emrys Westacott Philosophers are supposed to ask Big Questions. The Big Questions is the title of a popular introduction to philosophy and of a long-running BBC programme in which people discuss their ethical and religious perspectives. But since we philosophers, following in the footsteps of Socrates, claim to practice critical thinking, it behooves us to…

Beware of literature!

by Emrys Westacott “Beware of literature!” This warning occurs in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea as an entry in the diary of the narrator, Antoine Roquentin. In context, it concerns the way that literary narratives falsify our experience of events by investing them with an organization and structure that our experiences in themselves, as we live…

The Full Machiavelli

by Emrys Westacott How conceivable is this? Trump loses the 2020 US presidential election. But he refuses to concede, claiming that results in the swing states of Ohio and Florida were invalid due to voter fraud and crooked election officials. Fox News, other right-wing media and the Republican controlled congress go along with this. So…

The Unmeasurable Value of General Education

by Emrys Westacott Learning Objectives. Measurable Outcomes. These are among the buzziest of buzz words in current debates about education. And that discordant groaning noise you can hear around many academic departments is the sound of recalcitrant faculty, following orders from on high, unenthusiastically inserting learning objectives (henceforth LOs) and measurable outcomes (hereafter MOs) into…

Liars, dammed liars, and presidents

by Emrys Westacott There is a famous exchange in Casablanca between Rick  (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Renault (Claude Rains): Capt. Renault:  What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca? Rick:  I came to Casablanca for the waters. Capt. Renault: The waters?  What waters? We’re in the desert. Rick:  I was misinformed. Rick’s response is funny because it…

What if technology keeps killing more jobs than it creates?

by Emrys Westacott The industrial revolution transformed the world entirely. Its most profound legacy, though, is not anything specific like electricity, motorized transport, or the computer, but the state of permanent technological revolution in which we now live, move, and have our being. There are some, it is true, like economist Robert Gordon, author of…

Black Victims and White Privilege

Excessive violence by police officers dealing with African Americans is best understood as a product of systemic racism. An important aspect of systemic racism is white privilege, one example of which is the relative lack of fear with which most white people can interact with the police.

How Republicans could quell fears over their health care bill

The Democrats in the Senate should push for a basic public option guaranteeing that no-one will be totally screwed by the Republican proposal. If the free marketeers like Ryan and Reed really believe their own predictions, it is a safety net that will quickly fall into disuse since competition will produce superior options that health insurance consumers will prefer.

America’s complicated execution methods bespeak a bad conscience

The most humane option, though, is surely the one chosen by virtually all other modern democracies, and that is to stop executing people. An awareness of this is, arguably, the deepest reason underlying the bizarre complexity of executions in America. The elaborate technology and procedures bespeak a bad conscience. On the one hand there is the deeply ingrained desire for revenge and for primitive justice to be done: an eye for an eye; a life for a life. On the other hand, there is the undeniable fact that, whatever the means, a killing is a killing–to execute people is to deprive them of life by force and against their will. As Judge Alex Kozinski wrote regarding lethal injections, “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful.”

Critique of the Smiley Face

It is fitting that the original and still standard smiley face presents itself as a two-dimensional object, for this captures the relatively shallowness of the subjectivist conception of happiness. The Greek notion of well-being, by comparison, is richer both morally and psychologically; and it can usefully prompt us to reflect critically on our own culture’s default values. For there is more to happiness than mere pleasure. And there are more things to value in life than mere happiness.

Why aren’t we working less?

by Emrys Westacott Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the continuous increase in productivity characteristic of industrial capitalism would lead within a century to much more leisure for everyone, with the typical working week being reduced to about fifteen hours. This has obviously not come about. To be sure, in virtually…

Post-truth, post-shame politics

A pressing question in American politics today is whether there are enough Republicans in Congress who are still capable of being shamed into opposing Trump for the good of the country. At present, they serve as his enablers. Some of them may cringe inwardly, but they choose to ride the tiger, figuring that the death of truth is a price worth paying if it helps them to hold onto their seats or push through their agenda of cutting taxes for the wealthy, shrinking government, deregulating business, and so on.

Just how green is the frugal, simple-living locavore?

by Emrys Westacott Sages through the ages have advanced many arguments in favour of living simply and frugally. For instance: it keeps you away from morally corrupting temptations; it cultivates virtues like self-sufficiency and hardihood; it makes one better able to cope with adversity; it is the surest path to happiness since it curtails misguided…