On Merit

Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck. Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Princeton University Press, 2016

This morning I came across the comments section of an Italian online newspaper, under an article discussing Italy’s system of taxation and criteria of fiscal progression. One comment has struck me, one in which the author argued that he feels that a high rate of income tax is profoundly unjust.

As evidence, he mentioned his own experience: last year he spent 20 weeks travelling abroad for his company and worked hard, and at the end of the year he received a substantial (though unexpected) bonus. He ended up in a higher tax bracket and almost half of his bonus went to the tax office, despite his hard work and, allegedly, his good professional results. I suspect his disappointment is not unique.

Continue reading “On Merit”

Daniele Giglioli, Critica della vittima, 2014

Daniele Giglioli, Critica della vittima. Un esperimento con l’etica, Nottetempo, 2014.

“Perché lo dico io”: così si intitola uno dei paragrafi di Critica della vittima, un breve volumetto di Daniele Giglioli, docente di Letterature Comparate, pubblicato da Nottetempo nel 2014. E’ un frase che esemplifica sia l’atteggiamento dell’intellettuale escluso o che si presenta come tale, sia delle masse ai tempi del web 2.0. Non si possono mettere in discussione lo status di vittima, l’emarginazione sociale o culturale, il torto subito e l’assoluta rivendicazione che da questa ha origine.

Non è, questo, un libro che critica la vittima in sé o che si lancia solamente in una distinzione tra vittima reale e vittima presunta o immaginaria – come ricorda l’autore, «(d)alle vittime reali alle vittime immaginario il tragitto è lungo e accidentato» (p. 11). E’ piuttosto un testo che esamina un’antropologia e un’etica negative, che fondano su un’ingiustizia la propria potenza, la propria autorità, o semplicemente il proprio diritto a un’indiscutibile opinione, soddisfacendo così anche un certo desiderio di identità, di innocenza originaria (la vittima è innocente per definizione) e di una narrazione fondata sulla verità. Quest’etica negativa, così, richiede una riparazione dall’ingiustizia che non avverrà mai e che richiede uomini forti e soluzioni decise. Da qui, quindi, la crisi dell’analisi complessa, la ricerca di una soluzione semplice o semplicistica, del rifiuto della complessità in nome della parola incriticabile della vittima. Continue reading “Daniele Giglioli, Critica della vittima, 2014”

Humans and Real Humans on tv

Descartes' explanation of pain
Descartes’ explanation of pain and motion
[SPOILER ALERT: this post talks of the British drama Humans and of the Swedish drama Äkta människor]
[Parts of this post have already been published in 2013 on my Italian blog]
I have watched the first three episodes of Humans, the Channel 4 tv series inspired by a Swedish tv series, Äkta människor (Real Humans in English). I must say I expected something better. To explain why, I will extensively talk about the Swedish version of the series, to give the idea of what my expectations were and still are.
The plot of the original Swedish drama, which is composed of two seasons of 10 episodes each and whose extension for another season is still uncertain, unfolds around the hubots (instead called synths in the British version), technologically advanced androids that almost exactly physically resemble humans, if it were not for their glowing eyes, their skin free from imperfections, and their need to recharge via a simple electric cable or a USB cable. These robots are used for household chores or for hard work, they cannot lie, they are subject to the Asimov laws of robotics and they can be turned off at any time using a button typically placed under the left armpit. However, there are also free or liberated hubots, that move independently, without a master, and who (or which?) at first glance may make autonomous choices and also behave aggressively or friendly in relation to humans. In short, although they are created and designed as machines, they do not behave, at least at first sight, automatically or mechanically, but instead make their choices and are apparently free. The story, which takes place between levels of everyday family life or of police investigations on one hand, on the other hand, it raises philosophical, legal, ethical and existential issues, and the Cartesian problem of what differentiates man – who has his own mind and his own free will and at the same time a body that performs many functions without the need for a conscious intervention – by the automaton which, although technologically refined, is unconscious, still lies in the background. In other words: what if we ourselves are machines? Are humans really different from hubots/synths or, rather, are they both different types of complicated machines, or are both sorts of beings that in some way can develop forms of freedom? These questions imply many others.
Think, for instance, of a relationship between a human and a robot equipped with something like an artificial intelligence: you can also concede that the sexual aspect of it seems less important than others, as smaller and less technologically advanced objects (but still, objects!) have already been used for a long time to satisfy the pleasures of intimacy, but the emotional issues look really more problematic. If you can even, indeed, come to admit that you can love a machine virtually indistinguishable from a human being, can you, however, be truly loved by a robot? Or is it simply a result of biochemical processes and neuronal interactions in humans, and a code, an algorithm in the software of a robot? Or again: what to think of an act of violence perpetrated by a human on a hubot-style robot? Have these androids feelings, desires, needs and even intangible rights to be recognized and protected? Inger Egman, a lawyer, asks a liberated hubot «What makes you special?», and rightfully the hubot replies «What makes you special?».
Here, watching this series, which is narratively enjoyable because of the mysteries that are revealed only over time and that make it clear why hubots are free, why they hide and what are their plans, we are faced with issues that might seem abstract but which in reality could take hold in everyday life in a world where technology and automation are increasingly progressing, questioning the viewer – as well as Descartes questioned – on the old problem of dualism between body and soul, personal identity, of what the real human specificity is (if it is at all) or if it is that men and women are, after all, just complicated and sophisticated mechanisms that delude themselves talking about soul and freedom.
The British version of this drama seems to be lacking some depth. Do not be mistaken: the Swedish edition is all but a boring series revolving around the complex interaction between humans and non-humans, as there is, actually, plenty of actions, arguments, dramatic turns of events and a number of interesting situation. The thing is that perhaps, at the moment (that is, after three episodes have been aired), Humans characters do not appear to be completely able to give the same idea of complexity that the original ones are able to. Consider the third episode, for example, in which Toby (the second son of Joe and Laura Hawkins) is upset by the fact that his mother is returning Anita to the synths shop where she (it?) had been bought. We had only seen, previously, that he tried to see what was under Anita’s skirt, with no psychological development of the issue. In the Swedish series, the emotional and physical attraction of the same character to Anita takes place with more attention to feelings as well as to its social acceptance: can one be robotsexual? Is it a disturb or not? What schoolmates would think of it? And so on.
The plot of the story in the English-language version is not exactly the same, and perhaps I am affected by the fact that I already know – or, at least, I assume I already know – what will be going on sooner or later. Still, I think the two first seasons of the original Swedish drama appear slightly better than its Channel 4 remake – at least after having watched the first three episodes.

My PhD thesis: deadline is looming and feedback is always a useful thing

 

Between the two Philosophy buildings in Durham.

This morning I had my PhD progress review. I am writing this post in order to share some thoughts, because – of course – of a bit exhibitionism (otherwise I would keep these things for myself), and also because writing will help me to organize ideas and, perhaps, getting some feedback from readers (hello!).

A couple of things: my reviewers were a historian of ideas and a philosopher in the field of environmental ethics (can I mention them?). They had read a summary of my thesis and a timeline for completion. My thesis is on John Stuart Mill’s democratic theory and, if you could look at it, you would probably notice it starts from a quite general view (chapter II is currently titled «A note on utilitarian political philosophy») and then, eventually, it adopts a narrower and narrower focus on more and more specific topics: education, then democracy, then political representation, with a final turn on political ethics. The final chapter, though, has a sort of unexpected twist: I have been reading some of Zygmunt Bauman’s works lately, and at one point I thought they may fit into my thesis. The basic idea is that I want to theoretically ‘test’ Millian democracy, totally changing the social context and see how it could work and whether it could result strengthened or weakened.

I copy and paste from the summary I have provided to my reviewers a couple of weeks ago:

Chapter VII is the final chapter of the thesis, showing my conclusions. I use Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity in order to ‘test’ Mill’s political and social philosophy in a XXI century scenario. I argue that, on one side, the weakening of a sort of common class sentiment and the possibility, over one’s life, to be in a different position in the social ladder, and the increasing power of multinational/supranational economic and/or financial powers, may somehow reduce the strength of Mill’s argument; on the other side, the ever-increasing availability of information – both in quantity and in quality – may help the role of the intellectuals and of the well-educated and foster their moral obligation in political participation – for which I make the case in chapter VI.

Another thing you should know is that, when I started my PhD in October 2010, my intention was mainly to make a contribution on the history of Mill’s political and philosophical ideas. Eventually, I thought that some aspects may be addressed more critically.

During our meeting, we have raised and discussed two points.

1) In the thesis summary, I mainly used verbs or expressions such us “deals with”, “shows”, “provides a description”, “discusses”, “presents” and so on. In my opinion, this reflects the genesis of my thesis. I have been suggested that it may be the case to rather use expressions – in the thesis – such as (I am copying from my notes, they may not exactly reflect the examples I have been told): “I argue that the way history of this ideas can be framed is this…”, “This is how I have been interpreting this…”, etcetera. The point was that I still can just expound on others’ views or just describe things in large sections of my thesis, but that I may also still argue and comment on the way I show these views. I think that in such a way I show I am aware of the literature and the way I use it (or not use it) is still a case I have to make and somehow justify: mere description does not imply neutrality. Furthermore, what I may really need in these circumstances is crafting an elevator pitch (thanks to the reviewer who let me know this expression) in order to shortly explain why I am writing this, why I am concluding this, why I am relying on this interpretation and so on. The direction I am heading for is important.

2) The final chapter may be a too big task for a single chapter and at this stage of my PhD (I am expected to submit by the end of September). One of my reviewers was under the impression that, actually, what I was planning could definitely be something one could research on during a postdoc, and not just in the short time of the very final stage of a PhD. I agree with him, and I have received some good suggestions: first, I should not give a definitive account (indeed, I want just to pick a couple of issues and use them to ‘test’ Mill): second, I should suggest the next direction I intend to go.

We have also talked about my future inside or outside academia, but this is an object of discussion for another day.

Football tactics and moral choices

Newcastle vs Liverpool in the 2010/2011 Premier League season
Newcastle vs Liverpool in the 2010/2011 Premier League season

This is a thing to which I have been giving some thought from time to time, but I have never been able to give it a proper structure – or even, sometimes, to consider it a serious reflexion, as it is related to football.

There are a number of different tactical systems in football: catenaccio, tiki-taka, totaalvoetbal, just to mention some. They are different in a number of ways, except for one: they all aim to the maximum result, i.e. victory. De Coubertin would say that the important thing is participation, but, still, what happens in every competition is that there is a winner and a lot of losers, all of them deciding to compete in order to achieve the best possible outcome in a context in which the best absolute outcome is victory – so, it doesn’t matter if you play defensively or aggressively in football, you are seeking victory if you can have it, or the most honourable loss in less favourable scenarios.
If you’re playing catenaccio, you’re emphasizing defensive game: the beauty of the game doesn’t matter, it’s a football game. If you want to see something funny and entertaining, go to the circus.
If you choose totaalvoetbal, you think that everyone can play in almost every position: there are talented players, there are predispositions for favourite positions, but, if needed, anyone would go and take over someone else’s place without affecting the quality of the squad and the possibility to reach the target.
With tiki-taka, you are somehow playing the ball for its own sake, in most cases giving up other options such as crosses from the wings and subsequent headers. Ball on the ground, keep it between your feet, and show the world how good you are at football – and, possibly, score.

I have been wondering for a while whether there are any moral implications in the choice of a specific tactical system or not. It seems to me that catenaccio, for example, is a sort of generic, probably naïve, application of consequentialism: the final score is important, and we are using at their maximum the means we have to get it. It doesn’t matter if you have a specific talent, just do your best, and if you exceed or are too aggressive, the rules will punish you (red card!) – but always keep in your mind that victory is good, nothing else, and that what you do is good as long as it paves the way to final victory. Tiki-taka, instead, would stress he process through which you go before achieving what you want. You need to possess or have developed some individual and team features, some virtues to play tiki-taka and win.

What I’m trying to suggest here is that, perhaps, tactics in sports can be interpreted or described in terms of ethical choices, as tactical systems are a choice of the mores we use in order to achieve the Good (victory).

Do you think this may make sense?

Feel free to reply negatively, of course.

The work of JS Mill shows the importance of a common identity to the principle of European federalism

John Stuart MillIn his examination of John Stuart Mill’s thought on Europe in Mill’s works Bentham, On Liberty and Utilitarianism, Simon Glendinning has shown why, according to Mill, we are Europeans because we are not one. He also states that European greatness stems from cultural and national diversities across the continent and that the danger of stationariness (in Mill’s own words) comes from uniformity of thought. As a lesson for today, Glendinning argues that the European Union can be successful only if it preserves diversity and prevents intolerance.

However, through an investigation of what is probably Mill’s main work in the field of political theory, Considerations on Representative Government, we may find further hints on why European federalists should consider a plurality of nationalities as positive and how a proper federation should be built. (Read the full article on EUROPP)