Saturday, December 30, 2006

Disturbingly Addictive

This, via Crooked Timber. I was intending to do some vaguely productive today...

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Where?

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
His Most Serene Highness Lord Robert the Nimble of Buzzcock Lepshire
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

A Degree Of Confusion

I recently sent off, for the second time, an attempt to get my first article into an academic journal- the first time, I got back a very polite email containing the quite wonderful 'thanks-but-no-thanks' line, "some of the ideas are very interesting, but need more development", which I perhaps a little uncharitably read as 'if you thought these claims you are making through more thoroughly, you would see that they are clearly wrong'. Having decided which other journal to send the piece off to, I made a series of changes, which hopefully exhibit the required development without falling into the trap of thereby showing my arguments to be manifestly bad. One of the changes was to specify at least to some degree the kinds of policy implications that the piece, if correct, might have. As befits a closet Habermasian, and perhaps also a blogger, the crucial thing I urge is a greater engagement on the part of (anglo-american) political theorists with public political debate:

[o]ne of the consequences of [holding the view I'd been arguing against] by [liberal political theorists] is that they have tended not to get invovled in first-order ethical and political debates, since their view insulates them, through its adherence to a thin theory of the good, from such disagreements. The consequence of this insulation has been to deprive liberalism of the opportunity to articulate a set of ethical principles I believe in many cases to be very powerful. Exactly what arguments about the worthiness of particular forms of conduct liberals might make now, when, despite a concurrent enormous theoretical interest i liberalism, for the past thirty five years they have been reluctant to do so, is unclear. Perhaps the time of Millian liberalism has passed; perhaps not. Unless liberals engage in first-order ethical and political argument, it will be difficult to tell.

I won't rehearse the kinds of reasons that I think this sort of thing would be a good idea: see, picked more or less at random from the archives, this and this for an account of roughly why I think something like this. What interests me more now is the relationship between my academic espousal of the idea that presentation of arguments in and suitable for the public realm is a crucial part of political theory, and my practice, both in academia and in the public realm. The public realm first. I've tried to think a little bit about the norms which govern discourse in the public realm before: from a primarily philosophical perspective, here, while, here and here, slightly more practically and even polemically. I've even written a little about the norms of discourse in the blogosphere and once expressed the resolutely Habermasian hope that it might be some kind of an approximation of the ideal speech situation. Finally, the importance of the kinds of ideas expressed in the idea of norms governing the engagement in public political discourse has been a staple of my criticism of various political tendencies: see here, for example, or this.

Yet. Yet. Although I have not quite totally disappeared, I think I probably have been posting less than I once did. More than, I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with the possibilities of the blogosphere. Indeed, in an email exchange with someone about being uninterested in voting in a set of weblog awards, I wrote this:

[b]etter to say that I am no longer interested in the blogosphere - or whatever hideous neologism it refers to itself as now - as a whole at all really. It's unmanageably large: anyone who reads enough blogs to know what's going on the whole thing a) has far too much time on their hands, b) far too much patience with i) idiots and ii) terrible writing, and c) an inflated opinion of their own knowledge about many subjects, I think. Right-wing people exist. This is unfortunate. My voting in an online poll asking my opinions about things I have a) no particularly strong opinion on and b) no knowledge on which to base a opinion, strong or otherwise, is not going to make either of these facts untrue.

Now, to hope for too much of things is a fault, as is, at least for one of my political and moral persuasion, impatience with the views of others. Still, even with these caveats, a deflation of expectations nonetheless clearly has occurred. I wonder what to make of this apparent inconsistency between my commitment to public political argument, and my increasing disenchantment with what one might have hoped would be one of its more promising forums. More than this, there is a deeper inconsistency, even an irony. The arguments I rely on in the prospective article to try to force a re-engagement with public political argument by (academic) political theorists do not really themselves engage any obvious strand in public political argument, nor are obviously suitable for use in that kind of debate. Further, the research project I am now pursuing is both more abstract of itself, and of significantly less practical importance. I have also resisted, quite strongly at times, the idea that my work ought not to have these characteristics.

Perhaps this is a particularly circuitous way of repeating an already given farewell. Perhaps, rather, it is the expression of a disappointment at a lack of political issues on which I feel I have something worthwhile to write. Perhaps it is something else entirely, the expression of a realisation that an ideal speech situation is not to be found in such a socially marginal arena, or an acknowledgement that, having gone back to academia, it really is rather more attractive than the outside world. Whatever this is, I simply thought that the confusion, the tension, was worth noting.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What I Hate About Spiders Is That They Won’t Stay Still And Let You Kill Them

I realise I am spectacularly late with this, but this diary piece, by Jenny Diski, from the LRB at end of November, is quite wonderful.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


It's too late, and I'm too tired, to think of a clever joke to make about these, so, I'm just going to wilfully cut and paste Sarah's post.

These are great:

Watch George Bush doing U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday"...

...and Tony Blair with The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

There. Enjoy.

Lord Devlin and Liberal Neutrality

A while ago, for a series of not particularly interesting reasons, I read parts of Lord Devlin's criticism of the Wolfenden report, 'The Enforcement of Morals' . Amazingly, I think Lord Devlin was batsh*t crazy. His argument was essentially that legalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults would lead, by undermining the bonds that held society together, to total social breakdown. In my view, it's this kind of thing that gives conservatives a bad name, which perhaps means it should be encouraged. No empirical evidence for this claim is adduced: in particular, it is not explained why the then illegal homosexual acts between consenting adults do not themselves cause total social breakdown. Neither is any alternative to imprisoning people for voluntarily committing acts which do no harm - beyond the dubious harm of the offence, an offence which occurs anyway, since making some act illegal does not prevent it occuring, or even ocurring without punishment - to anyone else. Finally, there is no argument that total social breakdown would in fact be worse than imprisoning people for what any sensible person can see they have a right to do.

All of these things are quite rightly pointed out by Colin Farrelly in his piece here. What seems odd to me is that he does not think that these are things that can be said on the basis of liberal neutrality - understood here as the requirement "that the justification for a law or policy should be neutral... [that it] should not presuppose, for example, values particular to one conception of the good", as, for example, an appeal to piety would. Farrelly seems to think that because Devlin is appealing to the value of social cohesion, which plausibly is a neutral - in the relevant sense - value, the liberal neutralist cannot say anything against his argument. What seems to have gone wrong here is that the idea that a justification for a law or policy must not only be neutral, but justificatory, or else, in an important sense, it is not a justification. The problem with Devlin's argument is that it is an awful argument: its foundational premise is radically implausible, and even if we grant that premise, it is not clear that the conclusion follows.

Farrelly quotes from George Sher's 'Beyond Neutrality' earlier on in the piece. Eleven pages after the quote Farrelly gives, Sher defines neutrality of justification, the kind of neutrality Farrelly is talking about here, stating that "[a] law, institution or other political arrangement is neutrally justifiable if and only if at least one possible argument for it (1) has only neutral normative premises, and (2) contains no implausible premises or obvious fallacies and (3) provides a justification of reasonable strength". Farrelly interprets neutrality as only requiring the first premise. If neutrality only required the first premise though, my claim that we should use all our resources to build a giant statue of me out of pure gold because otherwise the volcano which will soon appear in the middle of Oxford Street will erupt and kill us all would have to be accepted by neutralists, despite the fact that I can present no evidence for any of these claims. It would in fact be impossible to rule out any policy, because if there are no requirements on the strength of the argument as long as it comes from relevantly neutral initial premises, any conclusion can be justified by simply making terrible arguments which begin with relevantly neutral premises. Since presumably neutrality should rule something out, this cannot be plausible conception of neutrality. Obviously, Devlin's argument only fulfills the first criteria. No neutralist should worry about it, because it is a terrible argument.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Cursed, I tell you, cursed. Indeed there was some mistake: it was that England were waiting for an opportunity to put first one foot and then the other in their mouth before shooting themselves in each in turn. If it wasn't England, it'd be unbelievable, but it is, and so it's not.

Friday, December 01, 2006


I'm going to bed, it's after midnight, and England haven't, beyond keeping the same side that got hammered last time, done anything terrible yet in the cricket. Truly I am blessed.

Update, 01/12/06: I wake up in the morning, and either the internet lies to me, or England have done OK through the night. Surely some mistake.