The Hate Crime Concept(s)

11 september 2012 | In academia Hate Crime media Moral philosophy Self-indulgence TV | 1 Comment

A few months ago, the German partner of the ”When Law and Hate Collide” project hosted a splendid symposium on hate crime.

You can find all the presentations on youtube.

My presentation on the Hate Crime Concept(s) (the spoiler is in the title: there might be several such concepts) is here.

The slides, if you find that you need to look at something a little less distracting than me moving about nervously, are here: The Hate Crime Concept(s)


Sentimentalism and Sports

16 maj 2011 | In Emotion theory Ethics Hedonism Moral philosophy Moral Psychology Psychology Self-indulgence TV | Comments?


I used to care about team sports. Mostly on a national team level (local teams are too much work. I did a season as part of a supporter orchestra, however, but mostly for social reasons). I used to care how things went, and my mood would fluctuate accordingly. Opportunistically, I cared most about table-tennis, hockey and handball: sports where my national team tended to do rather well. But then one day I found myself watching a game of handball, a final I believe, and the team were doing poorly and I was very upset. Clear physical symptoms. And then I took a step back thinking ”Really? This is important enough to be upset about?”. I have never taken sports seriously since. I’ve watched it, enjoyed it, cared about it with the sort of interest intellectuals invented around the 1998 World Cup in France, but never again taken it seriously.

Now to make a ridiculously big deal out of this. It doesn’t matter weather ”your” team wins or loses, in any ”real” sense of ”matters” . It matters only when you care about it. Things matter in the game. Scoring a goal counts, things are instrumentally good or bad. There are local norms. Some of them purely conventional, arbitrary, others invented, almost discovered, to make the game more appealing or make it flow better. But it’s not important that you care about the game. Beginning with a simple case like sports (first, debunk the importance of your team winning – easy, just look at the case for caring about the other team and realize it is usually just as good. Second, debunk the importance of the values inherent to the game altogether) we can generalize to other values. Aesthetic values, etiquette. Maybe even morals. This, of course, is Nietzsche (who I had been reading at the time).

This is how a sceptic argument get started: if we can debunk the importance of this, why not everything? If the emotional impact of caring about something is based on pure conventions with no independent justification – why care about anything? Is it all arbitrary? This, of course, is existentialism (and yes, I had been reading those people at the time, to).

There are two good replies to this challenge.

First: I stopped caring about sports by questioning it’s meaning, but that’s not how the process got started. Rather, it was when caring stopped being useful. Meaning and, I would argue, value, is often generated by caring about things that has no intrinsic, independent value. This is how sentimental value comes to be. It’s very common that positive emotions generated in this way, say by your team winning, becomes tied to negative emotions generated by it’s losing. Some people manage to have the one without the other, but they are often accused of not really caring. You should care about things that doesn’t really matter, because that’s the way to generate things that do matter – positive emotions tied to changing, attention-grabbing activities. In the sports case, it was the realization that it wasn’t working: too much negative emotion, not enough positive. This is when you should kick the habit.

Second: When I noticed that this game did not truly matter, it was a contrast effect. It did not matter as opposed to other things that did. This is a quite general reply to one sceptic argument: when you realize a mistake, you do so because it doesn’t measure up to the truth. You now know the truth (even if it is just that the earlier belief was false). It doesn’t mean that everything you believe is false. Some beliefs, and some values, pass the test. When taking a similar step back from other activities, they still seem to matter.

It’s a good thing to challenge your values now and then, if only to weed some dysfunctional ones out, and reaffirm your commitment to those that truly matters.

Bonus: This, I think, is the best possible metaphor for narrowly clearing a deadline

Reaction speaks louder than words

14 december 2010 | In media Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | Comments?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but someone apparently tried to make a religious/political point by blowing up car and self nearby a busy street in the city where we live. Presumably, the intention was to kill others to, but fortunately,that didn’t go so well. Presumably, the intention was also to inspire others to do similar things, but that seems unlikely to happen. If anything, the likely outcome, the one we need to make sure becomes the actual outcome, is a near universal condemnation of the act and of the somehow moral sentiment and moral reasoning that seem to have brought it about. This needs to, and it seems that it will, come from all ”sides”.

Thus far fairly direct, no? What’s peculiar is that almost everything I read about this event, and virtually everything that’s recommended on twitter and facebook and the like, are texts about reactions to it, rather than actual reactions. We’re all at least second-order now. Someone tries to kill people on the main street in the city where we live, and the knee-jerk reaction is to go online and find out what the New York Times make of it. The reactions are the news. Just like reports on the students protests in Britain outnumber reports on what they’re protesting about. Or reports on how that favorite footballer of ours is doing is outnumbered by reports on what the Italian newspapers say about how he is doing.

Reactions are more important than the events themselves. This is no complaint. In fact, I think it’s basically a correct and sound priority. First-hand knowledge is a beautiful thing but in almost any event, it’s more important how others react to it. Because the importance of the event, almost any event, depends on, and consists in, how people react to it. If people die in an attack, that’s terrible but people die all the time: what we must live with is their absence (but most of us did that anyway), but, more importantly: with how people react to it. Whether it changes their risk assessments and perceptions of certain groups, certain areas. Whether it influences their behavior. Whether or not it is the thing people talk about when they meet. I remember not reacting very strongly to the first reports of 9/11, but was made to realize it’s importance by the sheer amount of coverage.

And sure, part of this obsession is this anxious little country’s pride over making the international news, and shame and regret over not being able to be used as the good example any longer.

Obviously, one of the most important things to assess is whether this event makes it more, or possibly less, likely to happen again. If fear is warrented, it must be because we have good reason to believe that it’s more likely. Perhaps it’s more likely than we believed it to be before, even if it is less likely than it actually was before. It is as if we think that this person broke a tabu, and believe that others like him will think that it’s now ”OK”. It’s not, obviously. And if a point was made by that person, there is now less point for someone else to make the same point.

While it is important, as I say, to condemn this sort of act and the sort of moral reasoning that inspired it in direct and no uncertain terms, it is also important to understand what the point was, and where the reasoning went wrong. It’s easy and somehow comforting to chalk it up to madness (it makes it less likely to happen again, if there is no ”reliable” mechanism by which the action is motivated), but then we pass an opportunity to understand and prevent these things happening.

On work and idleness

9 oktober 2010 | In Books Happiness research Hedonism Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 1 Comment


I’m coming to you from (blogging is live, no?) a coffee shop in Gothenburg, where I’m spending this morning preparing next weeks lectures on applied ethics. (First out is animal ethics, which I have to weave together with the ethics of abortion, since we didn’t manage to conclude that subject on friday. Luckily, this is not a hard thing to do.)

It’s a good morning. It’s a very good morning. In fact, I’ve done more work in the past two hours than I did all day yesterday. Which is good for present me, but also a bit annoying for that curmudgeon I was most of yesterday.

What it means is that if I knew how to get to this point of effectiveness, even if it took some time (in fact, if it took less than six hours), it would have been rational to spend the main part of the day doing that, and just work for two hours, rather than working at a much slower rate for eight. It would be rational for another reason to: I’ve found that the way to get to this point is to do things that are nice. Talking to friends and family, reading fiction, taking walks,  listening to music or watching television. Good television, I hasten to qualify, because it seems the assigned function of being ”relaxing” is actually not truly attributable to all, or even the majority of, TV-watching. We just think it is, because it make us tired, and then we come to believe that we really needed the relaxation in the first place.

Ideally, of course, I would spend my free time doing the things that make me work like this for the full eight (or so) work hours. But things are not, entirely, ideal. Knowing that, its important to leave your work place occasionally and be idle. Do what you feel like doing, if your conscience and work-ethic will let you. Some companies, famously Google, seem to have grasped this idea and achieve great results for that reason. Of course, this is only true if your work is such that how effectively you can do it depends crucially on your mood and creativity.

Bertrand Russell’s wonderful little essay In praise of idleness is about precisely this. People should have more time to pursue and develop their interests not only because it make them happier – and happiness is, after all, what we want them to achieve – but also because they work better if they’re allowed to do that sort of thing. The worry that the working class would be up to no good if given free time to conspire was based on the fact that as things were, they took to drink, say, or fighting when off work. But in so far that’s true, it’s because they were unhappy, and hadn’t had the time to develop worthwhile pastimes.

Stress is not primarily a consequence of having a lot to do, but a of getting nothing done, or getting less done than you imagine that you should (and having a lot to do may cause that, but need not, and should not. Extremely few of your tasks, I think you’ll find, is done better under stress).

I’ll return to those lectures now. Because I actually really like to.

In Flagrante

16 juli 2010 | In Emotion theory Psychology TV | Comments?

Being caught at something involves more than just surprising someone with the unexpectedness of what occurs. Being caught involves doing something that means something: the act in question is taken as symptomatic of a general tendency, or as part of some larger activity, and this is what somehow rushes into the mind of the observer at the critical moment. In the paradigmatic case, the act one is caught in is the act of sex, and the sex in question represents (and instantiates) an illicit liaison, an act of betrayal of some implied or explicit contract you’ve got with your significant other.

(Side note: It is normally wise to take this contract as read, unless all parties thinks it’s OK, and even if they think its OK, make really sure that it’s actually, properly OK, because ”uncommon arrangements” (the title of Katie Ropers excellent little book on the topic) doesn’t often turn out great. Being conventional means behaving according to what has, for most people, turned out to be workable conditions. Being unconventional has potential benefits but also potential drawbacks such as failed relationships and death. Like most ”intellectuals”, I think, I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of this sort of unconventionality. Nabokov, always the most joyful killer of joys, pointed out that infidelity is the most conventional form of being unconventional. The interest is not so much the benefit of the lifestyle as such(even if a sex-life unlimited by convention may seem appealing), as in working out the kinks and examining the factors that makes it so difficult and so prone to failure. To exaggerate a bit, I think that the ”open relationship problem” might be for psychology and sociology, what ”Why can’t I fly?” is for the study of gravity. The  fact that the solution of that problem turned out to be less soaringly exhilarating and more material-dependent than we might have hoped, should be a lesson to us all).

The emotional response to catching someone at it is not brought about merely by the act itself, but by what it represents. It may be hard to see anything intrinsically wrong, but there are clear risks (STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, undermining of the mentioned contract and of future trust, a revealed general tendency to cheat etc.) and predictable reactions (a feeling of being inferior or unsatisfying as a partner, perhaps of betrayal as one has put in a lot of work to keep the relationship in a certain shape, and it turns out it isn’t.) Even if the cheating part is confident that none of these things would occur, being in the sort of optimistic and excited state flirting or seductions usually induces, he or she may underestimate the risks unwittingly, and fail to take certain dispositions of the cheated partner into account. ”What conceivable reason” the cheater may honestly think ”can there be not to have sex with this person?” and completely miss that virtually no act is limited by what happens while it takes place. Consequences and representations and shifts in larger belief sets (yours and the other parties’) are likely to be disregarded.

The paradigmatic quick response of the cheater caught is to blurt out ”it is not what you think”, which is precisely an attempt to stop the picture/story forming from the perceived event, and to steer it into more innocent territory. This rarely seem to work. Which is kind of odd, in a way. Somehow, very few scenarios – including cases where an enormous amount of work has been put into a strong and lasting relationship – is sufficient to make this event negligible, or to make the first reaction be ”this must be some sort of mistake”. It’s as if the suspicion has been there all along, just waiting for confirmation. The construction to which one reacts, and which warrant the strength and lasting effects of the emotional reaction, can’t very well be the product of that particular event. Indeed, the reaction is bound to be influenced not only by the alternative storylines one has about ones life, but also by various more or less artistic representations of events like it. In fact, if you ever catch anyone engaged in illicit liaisons, and in particular if she or he says ”it’s not what you think” the best way to vent your anger might be to bring on a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

The normal reaction is made sensible, however, by the fact that the deception implied means precisely that a large amount of previous held beliefs must be questioned at once, and the first thing to be doubted is what comes out of the deceiving party’s mouth.

Other things may, of course, be like this to. Sex is very important, but contingently so. If I really care about our conversations, have a vague feeling that they are not now as good as they used to be, and find you having a very spiritual conversation indeed with someone else, I may react in the same way. I can be caught playing a game of tennis (after claiming inability or reluctance to do so), plotting a revolution or planning a crime or a birthday party, and the reaction and the picture/story emerging in your head depends, of course, on our previous relations and arrangements.

”Being caught in the act” is interesting also because it’s similar to an other celebrated event, namely the phenomena of insight. An insight is typically a short cognitive event, a moment where a whole theory somehow presents itself, or a solution, that may be very complex, appear as if at once. Usually, this is something the mechanisms and outlines of which where in place already, but perhaps the credence, the degree of belief, was not and here we have some form of kink worked out or the crucial bit of evidence that was missing revealed.

As philosophers, I think, we often find ourselves in a position not unlike that of the cheater caught in the act: We claim something that is counter-intuitive and people won’t listen for the justification/reasoning. Because when listening to a philosopher, people often find that they trust their previous beliefs more than they trust their ability not to be fooled by a philosophical argument.  It’s like when we meet a magician. We decide not to trust our senses, because we know magicians are adept at deceive those senses. Bertrand Russell, notorious for his uncommon arrangements, used to say that the way to do philosophy is to work ideas the other way round: to start with something so trivial as to not seem worth mentioning, and to reason ones way into something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

The baby critic

15 april 2010 | In Books Comedy media parenting Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 3 Comments

spegel Through the looking glass, okay?

A few months back, to the great amusement of late night talkshows (US) and topical comedy quiz participiants (UK), a group of scientists lodged a complaint against a trend in current cinematic science fiction: It’s not realistic enough. The sciency part of it is not good enough. Science fiction stories should help themselves to only one major transgression against the laws of physics, argued Sidney Perkowitz. To exceed this limit is just lazy story-telling – time travel being a bit like the current french monarch in most Molieré plays. The best works of science fiction follows that almost experimental formulai: change only one parameter and see how the story unravels.

The criticism that started already in the first season of ”Lost” and has become louder ever since was precisely this: the writers clearly have no idea what they’re on about, they haven’t even decided which rules of physics they have altered. The viewer is constantly denied the pleasure of running ahead with the consequences of the changed premise and then watch how the story runs its logical course. Off course, a writer may add surprises, there is pleasure in that to, but you cannot constantly change the rules without adding a rationale for that change. That’s just cheating (or its playing a different game altogether. That is acceptable, of course, I’m not saying it isn’t, I just think this accounts for a lot of the frustration people experience with shows like ”Lost” or ”Heroes”).

The comedians who ridicule the scientist claim that the latter miss the point: Science fiction is suppose to be fiction. But in fact the point is that even fiction, at least good fiction, is not arbitrary.

It struck me that the point made by this group of scientists is very much the reaction that kids have when you break the rules in their pretend play. (There’s an excellent account of this in the opening chapters of Alison Gopniks book ”The philosophical baby”).

One of the interesting things about kids is their ability to, and interest in, pretend play. They are from a very early age able to follow, or to make up, counterfactual stories and imaginary friends and foes, and the stories that play out have a sort of logic. If you spill pretend tea, you leave a mess that needs to be pretend-mopped up. Many psychologists now argue that this is more or less the point of pretend play: you work out what would happen if something, that does in fact not happen, were to happen. The more outlandish the countered fact, the more work you need to put in to draw the right, or sensible, conclusions, and the more adept you become at reasoning, planning and coming up with great ideas. Stories that doesn’t further that project might be nice nevertheless: literature has other functions, after all. But the decline in this particular quality in current science fiction is still a sound basis for criticism. Even a baby can see that.

What Simon Said

30 september 2009 | In BBC TV | Comments?

I’m a big fan of british comedy panel shows. Have I Got News For You, of course (would they benefit from a new permanent host? If so, my vote is for Kirsty Young or Alexander Armstrong, both being capable of reading the autocue with the right form of detachment), QI, because it got Stephen Fry by the bucket in it, plus the rest of my favorite participiants (I could, and probably will, write at length about the supporting role of Phil Jupitus, the trademark rant of David Mitchell, the off-on-a-tangent brilliance of Bill Bailey etc.), even Mock the Week (Dara O’Briain’s physics jokes, Frank Boyle’s pseudo-psychopathy) and Would I Lie to You (sad to see Angus Dayton leave, but it is a much better vehicle for Rob Brydon), and I haven’t even started listing the radio shows.

And then there is Nevermind the Buzzcocks, returning to BBC tomorrow without the adorable and irreverent Simon Amstell, whose hosting for the past few years can hardly  be improved upon. Seriously: when it comes to sheer comedy brilliance, Amstell’s hosting off Buzzcocks is comparable to series 3-5 of the Simpsons. And, even more remarkable for a topical quiz show (about pop-music, no less), it seems to age remarkably well. It’s as much what he says (reads) as how he says it and to whom. Like the question ”When did you first realise that you had what it takes to be Rod Stewarts daughter?” or, to David Gest: ”You’ve must have met Grace Jones? Or married her?” . Or, when Noel Fielding pointed out that Courtney Love could break him (Amstell) ”like a twiglet”: ”Or kill me, and make it look like suicide” (BBC included a disclaimer in that episode.) I’m probably not alone in pleading to the BBC to release the episode with Russell Brand which got cut as part of the official punishment of Brands ill-advised phone calls.

The upcoming series will probably be more or less like when Mark Lamarr left, i.e. a long audition for a new permanent host. It will probably falter for a bit, but I will be there to watch it do so, and so will enough people to keep it running.