Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Cover

Forthcoming next month!

Thursday, March 31, 2016


Tonight I sent the final edits on the proofs of Biologically Modified Justice (all 276 pages, which I re-read twice!) which means I can lay to rest a project I started over 16 years ago. According to the CUP website the book should be published in hard copy next month (May).

I worked so long on this project it is hard to summarize the different emotions I have now that it is finished. I'm elated, exhausted, a bit sad all at once. I don't think I will ever take on a project as ambitious as this again. Researching and writing this book really did take a toll on me. Incorporating approximately 250 different articles and books from disciplines as diverse as political theory, philosophy, feminism, evolutionary biology, medicine, biogerontology, demography and psychology was simply exhausting. Added to this was the stress and strain of sending various chapters of the book off to journal publications in different disciplines, having experts in the various fields subject my arguments to critical scrutiny. And then when it came to finding a book publisher the risk was that referees from a specific discipline like political theory or philosophy would not be happy with, or see the relevance of, the amount of science covered in the book. But alas it all proved to be worth it in the end.

I can't wait to hold a copy of the final, finished project. And now I turn my attention to writing a textbook on genetics and ethics for Polity Press this summer. But first, a glass of wine!


Friday, March 25, 2016

Democracy and Education (100 years)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Dewey’s masterful book Democracy and Education.

There is so much that could be said in praise of Dewey’s insightful and original contributions to democracy theory and education. I just wanted to note the following passage, which is very relevant to contemporary debates about ideal theory. When articulating the worth of any mode of social life, Dewey aptly remarked:

“In seeking this measure, we have to avoid two extremes. We cannot set up, out of our heads, something we regard as an ideal society. We must base our conception upon societies which actually exist, in order to have any assurance that our ideal is a practical one. But, as we have just seen, the ideal cannot simply repeat the traits which are actually found. The problem is to extract the desirable traits of forms of community life which actually exist, and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement.”


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? :)