Turbans, paternalism, and the death of liberty

This is a quick afterthought on the piece I posted the other day about religiously-based exemptions, and also a response to some of the comments made on that piece. My central objective in that argument was simply to point out that many rules in our society already have exemptions built into them, in order to handle circumstances in which there is significant heterogeneity in the underlying interests. In some cases, just averaging them all together, or taking the vector sum, is not the best way of responding. This is particularly true in cases where a small minority has an interest (or assigns weight to an interest) quite divergent from that of the majority. In that case, it may make more sense to have a rule that applies in most cases, but then to grant an exemption for those in the minority. The example I gave was of speed limits, which have selective exemptions for emergency vehicles.… Continue reading

Singh, Sikhs, and turban exemptions

The other day I was sitting at my computer, writing an abstruse philosophy paper on an abstruse topic, when suddenly the very issue that I was discussing found its way into the headlines. The new leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, was accused of failing to respect the boundary between religion and politics, on the grounds that, while in the Ontario legislature, he introduced a private member’s bill that would have granted an exemption for Sikhs from motorcycle helmet laws. (There was a lot of grousing coming from Quebec about the “ostentatious” religious symbolism of Singh’s mode of dress.) The example, I thought, was ill-chosen, because one need not appeal to any exotic religious concerns in order to support such accommodations, they follow rather straightforwardly from the liberal norm of equality. Or so I argue. This is what I was writing:


The impression that exemptions necessarily involve some violation of equality is, of course, encouraged by the popular view that treating people equally involves treating them all the same.… Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Bill 101, or How Camille Laurin inadvertently saved Canada

I led a double life in the 1960s and ‘70s, growing up in Snowdon, which was then a largely Anglophone, lower middle-class neighborhood in the Western part of Montreal. We were pretty much the only French-speaking household in the area. My mother, a Hungarian Jew, had spent her adolescence in France (long story), had acquired French citizenship which she passed on to me (Thanks, Mom), and more importantly, had developed a very strong sense of French identity, and perhaps even of French cultural superiority. I therefore attended Collège Stanislas, an educational gulag which, though it did everything it could to stifle any creative spark that might have been flickering among its pupils, did instill upon me a strong grasp of the rules of agreement of the French language. My friends at school were for the most part French Canadian. There were a few anglos – but we lived in French. I was fully attuned to French pop culture.… Continue reading

Are university administrators wrongly incentivised?


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

The End of Privacy, Part 2: Scoring Pro-Social Behaviour

Despite what some philosophers will tell you, morality is clearly a work in progress. It changes over time. My father was born into a world in which “fornication” was considered immoral. Now, not only do most people not regard it as immoral, many have trouble even understanding how anyone could ever have regarded it as immoral. Such is the way things change.

There is a complex relationship between our moral code and the present state of technology. It is surely no accident that the seismic shifts in sexual mores occurred in the wake of the discovery of safe, effective birth control technology.

There is another technological change looming on the horizon, which it seems to me stands a good chance of changing everyday morality in fundamental ways. We can already see the technology at work in apps like Airbnb and Uber, which seek to eliminate the “trust” problem between contracting parties by allowing them to rate one another.… Continue reading

The Dion in Winter

Stephane Dion has left the federal cabinet and quit politics. It obviously wasn’t a voluntary departure, but he managed to give a gracious enough statement. He obviously still wants to be a public servant, and in public life. Where that will be remains to be seen — word is that he was offered some sort of ambassadorship, but is taking time to stew think it over.

His departure was inevitable. As Paul Wells reminds us, the antagonism between Dion and Trudeau goes back aways. He wasn’t a very good foreign affairs minister, and his attempt to formulate some sort of Weberian doctrine to justify the shit-eating that goes along with the job was pathetic.

And before that, Dion was the Liberal leader who led the party to its worst showing since 1867, until whatshisname who replaced him did even worse.

But before that, he was Stephane Dion, the scourge of Quebec sovereigntists, the architect of the Clarity Act, the federalist Sun Tzu who showed Ottawa how to take the fight to the separatists.… Continue reading

Charles Taylor: A Strong Evaluator

(published in German in the magazine Transit for Charles Taylor’s 85th birthday alongside papers by Habermas, Fraser, Joas, MacIntyre, Gutmann, Honneth, etc.)


In seminal essays such as “What is Human Agency?” and Part 1 of Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor tried to articulate a fuller notion of selfhood and personal identity than those available in the analytic tradition. He starts off by suggesting that stripped-down, Lockean conceptions of personal identity as self-awareness through time could not be the end of the story. The idea, for instance, that “identity over time just involves […] psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity”[1] is omitting, according to Charles, a crucial feature of what it is to be a person[2].


Even Harry Frankfurt’s richer theory of personhood lacks, according to Charles, a layer. For Frankfurt, what makes us distinctively human is our capacity to have “second-order volitions”, which involves being capable of rationally evaluating our first-order desires.… Continue reading

Thoughts on President Trump

A great deal has been said already on this topic, but let me point out a few things that have not received much attention.

First off, allow me to admit that I was completely surprised by the result. Congratulations to Andrew Potter for having called it correctly a couple weeks ago, but until last night I thought he was wrong. Mainly that’s because I believed all the stuff about the importance of the “ground game” in turning out the vote. I thought Trump’s inability to put together a coherent campaign organization was going to hurt him more than it did.

Also, I should note that this outcome is a huge victory for political science over punditry. Political science tells us that things like debate performances and “gaffes” don’t matter very much, but that electoral outcomes are driven by a very small number of “macro” factors – foremost amongst them is a desire for alternation of the parties in power.… Continue reading

In praise of status quo-ism, or, 10 theses arising from the Brexit fiasco

1. Citizens of reasonably free and reasonably democratic societies tend to underweight the value of stability. This is particularly the case when that society has been stable for a couple of decades or more, and so memories of previous instability are either foggy or non-existent.

2. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should overweight the value of stability. That is, in the absence of an overwhelming or unavoidable reason to do otherwise, he or she should strive to maintain the status quo at almost all cost. Put a bit crudely: A prime minister’s prime directive should be to defend the constitution.

3. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should never confuse intramural instability for national instability. That is, just because there are deep and existentially threatening cleavages within a political party, it does not mean there are similar cleavages within the nation that need attending to.… Continue reading

Intergenerational dimension of Brexit

One of the most striking features of yesterday’s referendum in the UK to leave the European Union is the significant generational split, with young people strongly favouring remaining. (This chart seems to be poll-based, but suggests that the only voters over the age of 55 favored leaving. Other polls suggest as much as 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to remain.) This is a case where people at different ages clearly are in different interest positions. The quid pro quo on accepting EU immigrants to the UK is that UK citizens, in turn, have the right to live and work in other EU countries. This is a benefit that young people are much more likely to take advantage of than old people. (In fact, old people drawing pensions can continue to live pretty much wherever they like in Europe, the way Canadians live in Florida. It is young people who will feel the mobility restriction, because they will be unable to work.)

One might think that this raises a significant issue of fairness.… Continue reading