When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the prevalence of positivism in the social sciences – the idea of studying social phenomena in an “objective” or “value-free” manner – was one of the great evils in the world. Not only was it an illusion, but it was a harmful one, because beneath the guise of objectivity there lay a hidden agenda, namely, an interest in domination. Treating people as objects of study, rather than as subjects, was not politically neutral, because it generated a type of knowledge that just happened to be precisely of the sort that one would need in order to manipulate and control them. “Objective” social science, in other words, was not value-free at all, but rather a tool of oppression.
The alternative to this, warmly recommended at the time, would be a new form of social science, one that was explicitly guided by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason.… Continue reading
Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.… Continue reading
In contemporary philosophy and economics, a central paradigm is the idea that rather than put our trust in people’s virtue, or overburden them with laws and regulations, we should provide them the correct incentives for them to guide their own actions. In particular, we seek to align interests, so that decision-makers, workers and the public at large all aim toward the same set of goals, despite having different goals. For example, if your money guy receives a percentage of what you make, then the theory says that his interests aligns with yours, and that lessen the risk of bad management, since both of you nowhave a vested interestin you making more money.
Obviously, there are plenty of ethical, psychological and economicissues with this theory, however, in many cases, the problem is not so much due to the theory itself; it is simply a matter of having failed to correctly align the interest in a given situation, which then predictably leads to conflicts between actors.… Continue reading
As I write these lines, McGill University is reeling from the scrutiny that has been brought to bear upon it in the handling by its upper administration of what has come to be known as the “Potter Affair”. I think we could have come out of this crisis much better that we have done. I offer the following reflections, not because I think there is any way that the present situation can be made good – the well has been poisoned to far too great a degree for that – but in the hope that it might guide our institution, as well as others, through similar challenges.
First, let’s get a couple of matters out of the way. To begin with, yes, Andrew is a friend. He was my postdoctoral student many years ago at the Université de Montréal. Our life trajectories have not led to our having had that much contact since then, but we have been in regular touch.… Continue reading
(Those who have been following the news will no doubt know that Andrew Potter, our co-blogger here on In Due Course, as well as my friend and sometime co-author, has been at the centre of not one, but two, recent scandals, the first when he published an unpopular column in Maclean‘s, which he quickly came to regret, and the second when he stepped down from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Unsurprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter…)
The McGill administration appears to have sleepwalked into what is arguably the most egregious violation of academic freedom in this country in living memory. To see how outrageous it is, consider how it would look had it occurred to me. Suppose, for instance, that I wrote an opinion column called “10 things I hate about Toronto.” That actually wouldn’t be much of a stretch, because I hate Toronto, and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a list of 10 things.… Continue reading
Back when I lived in Montreal, there were about a dozen women in my neighbourhood – obviously recent immigrants – who had a strange hangup about dogs. Whenever I was out walking the dog, they would take great pains to avoid us, sometimes even crossing the street to walk on the other side. Once I came around a corner and startled one of these women, who when she saw the dog, literally screamed and ran away from us. At other times, if they were walking with their children, I would notice them covering their children’s eyes, so that they would not make eye contact with the dog.
Now I know there are some cultures where the thought of living with a dog is considered rather disgusting, but this seemed to go far beyond mere disgust, entering the realm of fear bordering on terror. So I asked a friend who studies this sort of thing what was up.… Continue reading
The Wal-Mart-ification of Public Services
Our childcare fantasies for this country are pocketbook politics at their most distorted.
Currently, monthly childcare fees at licensed non-profit centres can be as high as $1600/month. They vary widely depending on the geography and age of the child. The service is on par with rent and tend to bite new parents in the butt.
In response to steep fees (by the way, can we call it “tuition”?) it seems that many Canadians have decided that parents should pay about a quarter of the going rate while the rest of us generously pick up the tab. The thing is, no part of the $15/day childcare “movement” makes an effort to elaborate on the fine print of that bargain. Though market demand far exceeds the present supply of spaces, the current and would-be users of childcare services are pressing for a super discounted price. As presented, their appeal does not make sense.… Continue reading
I’m in deep summer mode now, so blogging will be light for a while. Someone asked for this though, so here it is – a list of the books that have had the most influence on the way that I see things (or that deeply changed the way I see things, or that in some other way blew my tiny mind). I’m excluding the classics here, focusing just on books published post-WWII:
1. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis
2. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action
3. Talcott Parsons, The Social System
4. David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement
5. John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class
6. Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit
7. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process
8. François Éwald, L’état providence
9. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool
10. George Ainslie, Picoeconomics
These are also roughly chronological, in the order that I read them.… Continue reading
Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”
The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one.… Continue reading
So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.
In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day.… Continue reading