Weekend reading in ethics, featuring Marie Kondo

Nihilanand - anti-natalism

Here are three pieces that have been open in my browser for a few days now, while I kept postponing the urge to write something substantial about each of them. Instead, I’ll simply present them for your consideration, with a paragraph or two on selected areas of possible interest.

First, Bruce Schneier on blockchains, and how it’s debatable that they live up to what many consider one of their key promises: to “displace, reshape, or eliminate trust“. Schneier is an American cryptographer who has written extensively on security issues (his work on airport “security theater” is well-worth reading), and he certainly speaks with authority, even if you might not agree with his analysis.

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The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

The post title refers to Russell Blackford’s most recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. Blackford is an annoyingly prolific writer, who has published numerous works of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as having edited at least 5 volumes of essays that I’m aware of.

By way of disclosure, I also regard him as a friend, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for my and Caleb Lack’s 2016 book, Critical Reasoning, Science and Pseudoscience. Despite these connections, this note on the book is unsolicited, and entirely sincere.

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Computational propaganda, clickbait, and personal responsibility

A DPRK propaganda poster

The proliferation of misinformation on social media – or even just partisan or sensationalistic treatments of politics, science and human relations – could reasonably be considered a threat to democracy itself.

When you add computation propaganda to the mix, where bots are deployed to manipulate public opinion, filter-bubbles form even more readily, and you can now find a closed and self-reinforcing community to reinforce just about any view you can imagine.

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Judge Learned Hand and liberalism

“Judge Learned Hand” reads like a Zen koan or something, but he was in fact an American judge, who has been “quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge“. Yes, that is (most of) his real name – the full version is Billings Learned Hand.

His Wikipedia page (linked above) makes for fascinating reading, but if you leave this post wanting to know more about his thinking, I’d encourage you to read Jerome Frank’s 1957 article titled Some reflections on Judge Learned Hand (pdf).

The aspect of his thinking that I want to briefly discuss here is about what liberalism meant to him, and what it means to me. In 1944, Hand gave a speech titled “The Spirit of Liberty” to a gathering of around 1.5 million people in Central Park, NY, many of them newly-naturalised citizens.

You can – and indeed should – read the full speech. The portion of it I want to address goes as follows:

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The Civil Union Amendment Bill

A month or so ago, I wrote about Deirdre Carter’s Private Member’s Bill that seeks to remove Section 6 from the Civil Union Act. Section 6 allows government officials to opt-out of officiating gay marriages on grounds of “conscience”.

The call for public comment on this Bill has now gone out, and you have until 4pm on October 23 to send your comments to Mr Eddy Mathonsi [email]. We can be sure that the likes of Errol Naidoo and other homophobes will be writing in to object, so please consider indicating your support for this Bill.

What follows is some text that you are free to copy-and-paste, or amend as you see fit, in order to make your submissions as painless as possible. The text is a variation on the blog post linked above, so if you read that, none of the content will be new to you.

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On Helen Zille and identity politics “destroying freedom”.

Today’s Daily Maverick includes an opinion piece by the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who asserts that identity politics is “destroying freedom”.

The short version of this response to some of her claims might read something like “sure, identity politics might compromise freedom in some of its extreme manifestations, but never as reliably as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination do”.

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COPE and the Civil Union Act

DHA offices where same-sex couples can be married

In addition to her Private Members Bill on Advance Directives, which I wrote about earlier this month, Deirdre Carter of COPE has also been pushing for changes to the Civil Union Act, and I’m pleased to report that the Parliamentary committee meeting (15/08) seems to have gone well, with all present agreeing that Section 6 of the Act needs to be reconsidered.

Section 6, for those not familiar with the Act, is the clause that allows for Department of Home Affairs (DHA) officials to opt-out of officiating same-sex marriages. It reads:

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DignitySA and COPE to bring advance directives Bill to Parliament

COPE DignitySA

I’ve written plenty about assisted dying (and DignitySA, an NGO dedicated to securing the right of South Africans to a good death) over the years. It’s a topic that is understandably emotive to most people, but also one that’s the source of great tension between secular and religious views on how states should be governed.

For example, South Africa’s Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, mistakenly believes that “only God can decide when a person dies“, which is a motivation that can only be taken as legally relevant if you are living in a theocracy. In a secular state, people should of course be free to exercise their religious commitments if those commitments don’t violate the law. Continue reading “DignitySA and COPE to bring advance directives Bill to Parliament”

On Trump and bullshit

Donald Trump

As part of a series of events celebrating what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, President Obama gave a speech in Johannesburg yesterday, in which he made reference to “the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more”.

While it seems clear that he was making a direct reference to President Trump, his remarks bring to mind broader issues such as the value of truth to democracy, and the difference between lies and liars on the one hand, and bullshitters on the other. Continue reading “On Trump and bullshit”

Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter

xkcd emotion comic social media

A friend of mine once remarked that we can either have democracy or the Internet, but not both. Even if the point is perhaps overstated, interactions on social media, and omnipresent clickbait, certainly contribute to the perception that there’s far more noise than signal on the Internet.

While it’s certainly possible to have productive conversations on social media, those seem – in my experience at least – to have become increasingly rare. Charlie Brooker once listed Twitter as his top pick in the category of video games (in the 2013 show How Videogames Changed the World), and it’s easy to see his point – the platform should perhaps simply be thought of as entertainment rather than as an opportunity for an exchange of ideas. Continue reading “Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter”