Saturday, January 02, 2016

What is Democracy? [in 3 words or less]

I’m teaching a new undergraduate seminar this term on law and politics and I’m framing the course around the problem of collective decision-making. To build up to the narrative surrounding the course content I want to start the first lecture with the basic question: what is democracy?

The standard way to answer this question is to invoke something like Robert Dahl’s excellent characterisation of democracy as a decision-making process that has (1) effective participation, (2) equality in voting, (3) gaining enlightened understanding, (4) exercising final control over the agenda and (5) inclusion of adults.

But I think this characterisation of democracy, which I agree is great for political science students, is too specific for the purpose I have in mind in the intro lecture. I’m after something even more basic and general as it will help make more vivid the stakes involved in the topics covered in the course. To get at that more general, basic understanding of democracy I want you to consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine intelligent aliens from a distant planet arrived on earth and, after observing our political life, they asked why we hold regular elections, have constitutions, legislatures, courts, freedom of the press, etc. They note that it all seemed extremely costly, and did not appear to be a very effective way of getting things done.

To sensibly digest what a democracy is the Aliens require a basic description that is no more than 3 words in length [they have TWITTER-LIKE BRAINS!]. Only a very succinct characterization of democracy will resolve their puzzlement. So citing Dahl's characterisation doesn't help. When the aliens try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions and practices of medicine it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to prevent, treat and manage disease, illness and disability. When they try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions (e.g. political economy) and practices of economics it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to try to facilitate economic growth and avoid fiscal disaster. But they remain puzzled as to what democracy is and what it's function or telos is. They are hoping that a most precise characterization of democracy will help them overcome their puzzlement.

I think the most helpful way of answering the query of the Aliens is to invoke the American pragmatist John Dewey’s understanding of democracy. Dewey characterised democracy as an experiment, a social experiment. And I think that is the best, general characterization of what democracy is.

Democracy is a way of life that humans have been (seriously) fine-tuning for over a century (though the Ancient Greeks first dabbled with democracy in the 5th century BC) the goal of which is to promote our opportunities to flourish as both individuals and collectively as societies. This social experiment is an attempt to make collective decisions that promote morally laudable aims, whether that be promoting peace and security, economic prosperity or justice, freedom and equality.

Democracy is still (obviously) a work-in-progress. Despite its many imperfections and shortcomings, the empirical evidence amassed so far in terms of how democracy performs compared to non-democratic ways of life is very impressive. For the 21st century there doesn't appear to be any serious contenders vying to compete with democracy as the way of life for humans This is the first century ever that this has been the case. Much work still remains of course in terms of fine-tuning and refining the social experiment that is democracy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Philosophers vs Welders?

Fascinating to see the employment prospects of philosophers being addressed in the GOP debate (no such thing as bad publicity right!).

But I think it is a false dichotomy. We don't have to choose between more philosophers and more welders. Perhaps the best outcome would to create more welders who are philosophers and philosophers who can weld! I'm sure a university somewhere will develop a hybrid program for that niche market!


Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Teaching in Prison (Final Reflections)

Last week I finished volunteer teaching a 5 month Political Philosophy class to 8 inmates here at a prison in Kingston. I have to say it was without a doubt the most significant and rewarding teaching experience of my 16 year teaching career. And I have had many teaching highlight moments having taught in Canada, England, Scotland and the US.

Like most things in life, I find the most rewarding things are those you are not financially compensated for. So why teach in prison? Two reasons.

Firstly, it is extremely rewarding. The intrinsic benefits of engaging with students eager to hear about the canon of political thought, eager to share their personal experiences, eager to contemplate what a more desirable and fair society would entail, is deeply rewarding for someone who has chosen a career in higher education. My students were bright, perceptive, engaging and friendly. They each brought a depth of personal life experience to our debates I seldom witness in a university seminar. Debating the topics of what makes an action morally right or wrong, or when (if ever) one is morally justified in engaging in civil disobedience or why punish wrongdoers with interlocutors who have themselves admittedly committed severe wrongs and have been subjected to state-enforced punishment (e.g. decades of imprisonment) brings a richness and complexity to the discussion which I seldom find teaching in a university setting.

Secondly, there are also instrumental (societal) benefits. These inmates will, eventually, be released back into the general population. Exposure to, and engagement with, political philosophy can, I believe, make their lives richer so they might be better fathers, better husbands, and better citizens when released from prison than they would otherwise be without such intellectual engagement while behind bars.

Granted my course was only a very small exposure to the discipline for most of the men, but I hope to make the teaching of the course over the summer months a regular thing in the future. And I have ambitions to organize workshops, conferences, journal submissions and more courses in the future. Having had a taste of what teaching in prison has to offer, I am eager to make it a regular part of my life for many years to come.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Biologically Modified Justice (FINISHED!)

My book Biologically Modified Justice is now finished, and sent off to the publishers at Cambridge University Press. PHEW!

It took me over a decade and a half to write the darn thing. By far it will be the most significant book I write in my career, which is not to say it will necessarily be significant. But I obviously hope it is! By "significant" I mean I hope it will help foster interdisciplinary dialogue between those working in the humanities/social sciences and those working in the life sciences. I also hope it will help foster more rational and cogent deliberation and debate of how to regulate novel technologies like gene therapy and an aging intervention.

It is hard to comprehend the emotions of finally completing a project that I have been working on for 15.5 years! I suppose it might be similar to the feeling a parent must have when, after years of feeding, caring for and driving their child around daily they finally(!) send the child off to college only to realize how much they are going to miss them being so dependent on them. But of course college kids still depend on their parents! And likewise I know the work on this book will still come in with proofs, hopefully replies from critics, etc. So it's not "over" in many senses, but in the most important sense (as a live "work in progress" in my mind) it is now OVER!

I decided to start writing a book on the genetic revolution back in the spring of 2000 as the race to sequence the human genome was heating up and there were lots of emotive discussions in the media about the pros and cons of things like gene therapy and gene patents. At the time I thought I would complete the book by 2005 at the latest and that it would be an arm-chair philosophical reflection on the issues. But in the end I developed an empirically-informed, non-ideal moral analysis that (I hope!) seriously engages in the diverse scientific and societal concerns and issues that arise with new biotechnologies.

What am I up to next?- PLAY! (the study of play to be more precise!)

This is what I wrote on my FB page this morning:

Is the following reasoning sound?

After spending the last decade learning about aging- the biology of aging, interventions to retard aging and the ethical implications of life extension- I am very aware of the fact that I am more aged now than I was when I started seriously thinking about aging 10 years ago.

I am now devoting the next decade of my research to learning about play- the biology of play, the different types of social, imaginative and physical play and the societal implications of pursuing what I call the "Playful Dividend".

So does it stand to reason that I can expect to become much more playful over the next decade? :)


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Teaching Political Philosophy in Prison: Some Initial Reflections

For the past two months I have been (volunteer) teaching a bi-weekly Political Philosophy Discussion Group to inmates at a prison here in Kingston. So far we have covered Plato’s Republic, The Apology, Crito, civil disobedience, and Hobbes’s Leviathan (next up is Marx).

While it is not appropriate for me to comment on anything specific to the inmates or penal institution (which would violate confidentiality guidelines I am bound to), I can share a few pedagogical reflections on my experience to date which I hope might motivate other academics (and non-academics) to consider getting involved with their local prison.

Teaching to inmates is something I have been meaning to do for years. Now that I finally have started doing it I wish I did it years ago. While the class is not yet over (it runs for 4 months) I can say that the experience thus far has been among the most rewarding teaching experiences I have had in my 16-year career as a professor. And I say that as someone who has had the privilege to teach excellent students at 7 different universities in 4 different counties.

What makes it such an engaging teaching experience? Well, for me, the number one determinate of a rewarding teaching experience is this- does it facilitate my own intellectual growth and development? In other words, I think the best teaching moments are those that facilitate my own growth and development as a student (and yes the growth and development of my students matters immensely as well, that is a given! :) ).

I became a professor precisely because it was a career path that permitted to remain a student for life. And I think there is no greater calling, at least personally for me, than the path of perpetual learning (something I also try to pursue outside of my job, whether it be with parenting, companionship, friendship, volunteering, exercising, etc.).

Teaching to inmates facilitates my own growth and development in a variety of novel ways. Firstly, the demographics of the students in the class are very different from that in your typical university class. So the age, socio-economic background, etc. of the prison population is very different from what I am use to. This is not to suggest that the inmates I teach lack in education (formal or informal). On the contrary, some of them have university degrees, or are in the process of working towards a university degree. And they all have valuable life experiences relevant to the questions we ponder. Collectively I find them extremely intelligent and engaged in the topics in the course.

This group does have life experiences different than your typical 19 year-old university student, and as such it is very interesting to hear their reactions and thoughts on the topics I typically teach. For example, when I teach civil disobedience and political obligation to your typical 19 year-old at university this is typically a topic addressed in a purely academic or "arms-length" speculative fashion. Many of these university students haven’t yet even voted in an election, let alone seriously contemplated the conditions under which it may be ethical to violate a law. But when engaging these topics with students who (a) have actually broken the law; (b) who experience, daily, the personal costs of their illegal action and (c) might spend years in (relative) isolation contemplating the very philosophical questions you have posed then you get a wealth of different perspectives on such topics. As inmates open up about their own history and story a rich, nuanced understanding of the topics emerges that I think is difficult to replicate in your typical university seminar.

So to date this experience has been extremely positive for me (and the feedback they provide me suggests they enjoy it as well). I have learned a great deal so far and I look forward to the remaining weeks of the course.


Monday, March 30, 2015

“End of Teaching Term”

7 months ago 250 undergraduate students and I started an intellectual journey through the history of ideas, from Plato to Marx, in my Introduction to Political Theory evening course.

We transcended our time and location in search of knowledge and wisdom concerning how we ought to live, collectively together, as a society.

Our journey started with the Ancient Greeks- Is democracy simply “rule by the ignorant”, as Plato argued in The Republic? Is the “unexamined life not worth living”, as Socrates asserted when threatened with the death penalty for challenging the beliefs of his contemporaries? We also explored Hobbes’s state of nature, contemplated Rousseau’s diagnosis of inequality, debated Burke’s defence of tradition, considered Wollstonecraft’s argument for equality of the sexes, examined the pros and cons of utilitarianism and finished by pondering Marx’s critique of capitalism. Our collective goal was to engage in, and critically assess, the intellectual project of positing and refining a “science of politics”.

What is human nature? What constitutes the good life? What are the legitimate functions, and limitations, of state coercion? What is freedom and equality? These questions remain persistent, live questions for us today as we ponder the collective fate of humanity this century. By turning to the past we can understand where many of these ideas originated, how others attempted (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to meet the challenges of their times, and we can assess which aspects of their ideas should be rejected, refined or revived. The past contains a wealth of wisdom that we ignore at our folly.

Tonight the intellectual journey with my students came to an end, with our last lecture. I really love teaching this class. And I look forward to doing so again next year!

For the next few months I will be hunkering down to the solitary exercise of making the final revisions and edits to a book on justice and the genetic revolution, a project I must complete before teaching re-starts in September. Oscillating as I do between the concerns of the past and those of the future helps keep me as grounded as I could hope to be in the all too elusive "present"!


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Virtue Ethics and Democracy Paper

Tomorrow the Queen's Political Philosophy Group will be discussing my new paper titled "Virtue Ethics and the Democratic Life". The group is very good at highlighting the problems with an author's argument- bringing to the fore an author's hidden assumptions, misinterpretations, mistakes, etc. so it should be fun!

A draft version of the paper is available on my page,