Tag Archives: Philosophy

The best philosophy course I taught in 2016

I want to write a little about my favourite of the courses that I tutored and taught last semester. This course challenged those attempting it more than most, but luckily it played host to some of my best students. I’m confident that it made a bigger difference to their philosophical development than any other course we offer at my university.

This was a gruelling and wide-ranging syllabus. We covered epistemology, critical reasoning, metaphysics, and ethics. These conversations were fun (for me at least). But more than that, once students were less self-conscious, they gave a great insight into how quickly they were progressing.

Thinking about how we know things was a tough way to start – not least because we don’t often consider this in everyday life. But it was a picnic compared to propositional and predicate logic I inflicted on them. Pretty soon though, the students started getting the point: seeing something doesn’t always make it true, though this did ‘ruin the Matrix’ for one student. They started seeing that not everything that resembles sound reasoning actually works, and would come to class with a list of faulty arguments & justifications peddled by politicians and advertisers. I was especially happy when a student pointed out to me a version of the slippery slope argument that I’d never really considered. She’d seen a real-estate ad, where buying the ‘right’ house inevitably led to a child being a huge success – all though a series of steps (each more implausible than the last), and informed me that slippery slopes can go ‘uphill’ too.

The relief that they felt at completing the logic module was short-lived as they began to grapple with metaphysics. Identity and personhood were tricky concepts at first. But thanks to our discussion of the Ship of Theseus, most of my ex-students will never invest in a teleportation scheme. Despite my best efforts, including a robust discussion of what Mary knew (Jackson’s Knowledge argument), most of them retain their belief that everything is physical, and that’s that. But they also know that personal identity over time is a potentially complicated topic.

Ethics was the final hurdle. We argued about whose interests to take into account in utilitarian calculus – including speculating about whether a utilitarian AI would actually be a good thing. Divine command theory challenged them to consider if it actually made sense to say that something was good purely because God decrees it. Finally, we took a hammer to cultural relativism and subjectivism. There were no simple or easy answers, but that was OK as by this stage the students were comfortable with that.

All of this was peppered with assessments ranging from a stressful written logic exam to a diabolical ethics essay: ‘Can it ever be right to deliberately take a human life?’

So, who were these students? Was this an advanced class? Did they come into university with great marks from high school? The answer is no, and no. The course was Open Foundation Philosophy. The students were undertaking one or other of UoN’s enabling programs (Open Foundation or Newstep) – designed for students who’ve experienced educational disadvantage and who would otherwise be unable to get into a degree. These were students with lower HSC results, or who had never finished high school. Some were tradies, or worked in retail. Others were out of work. The last time some of them set foot in a classroom, I hadn’t even been born yet. (And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very proud of all of them).

I can’t sugar-coat the rate at which participants dropped out. Despite our best efforts, some students find it too much of a shock to the system. Others discover that they’d rather do something else than go to uni. But of those who did make it through, they join a long list of students who tend to very well in their further studies. I heard one very high-ranked administrator once say that completing one of these programs was the best predictor of success we had. I could dig out some figures, but since it’s outside of semester, I’ll stick to anecdotes and point out that I got into university via Open Foundation Philosophy some years ago. I hope my PhD means I turned out OK.

Whatever these students go on to study, and it isn’t always more philosophy, I’m confident they will do well. Research indicates that children exposed to philosophy are higher achievers in other areas, and I suspect the same is true of adults. Figures also suggest that philosophy grads tend to have good earnings, despite working across a broad range of careers. Perhaps this is because philosophy, through specific skills like formal logic, and a general ability to grasp abstract and complicated ideas, is the ultimate transferable skill-set. It’s what some people might call ‘powerful knowledge’.

Importantly, philosophy is for everyone, not just ‘ivory tower’ types and other so-called ‘elites’. Students don’t need to have gotten top marks in high-school (or have even finished it). They just need opportunity, support and perseverance. Philosophers talk a lot about the value of their high-powered cutting edge research – and that’s worthwhile. But perhaps this course is the sort of thing we should really be concentrating on.

Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.

Doing better than Decriminalisation

UNGASS2016 is rapidly approaching. On a more local level, an Australian Senate committee recently considered issues around recreational cannabis legalisation.

Discussion of the best way forward for drug policy is certainly in the minds of those advocating for reform this year. In an ideal world, it would on the agenda of political parties as they decide their policies for the next election.

A solution that does seem to crop up with some regularity, especially for cannabis, is decriminalisation. Essentially this would mean that for a given drug (or possibly all drugs), people caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs, and in the case of cannabis growing a small number of plants, would not face criminal charges. Rather, people would be subject to a range of civil sanctions including fines and/or community service, and are encouraged into counselling or treatment if appropriate. I have read here that many cases in the Portuguese decriminalised system are ‘suspended’, meaning that many people receive no penalty at all, but I’m not going to assume that this would happen in other contexts.

Decriminalisation is the official drug policy of the Australian Greens. Smaller parties such as the Australian Sex Party and Liberal Democrats have (in their own distinct ways) policies that tend to support legalisation, though in both cases, this seems only to extend to cannabis. Unsurprisingly, The Coalition and ALP are at the more conservative end of the spectrum, though I can’t speak for the individual views of party members & parliamentarians.

I want to talk about the idea of decriminalisation as it strikes me as a philosopher. What I’m going to argue is that decriminalisation, as an endpoint for drug policy, is based upon assumptions that are much less progressive than they seem (at best). Decriminalisation as an interim step on the way to legalisation, as argued by Julian Buchanan – that’s another matter.

What argument, in its simplest form, might support decriminalisation?

  1. Drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e.: via decriminalisation.

This might seem reasonable. But parts of this argument are distinctly lacking in nuance. Namely, the first premise – that drug use is harmful. Without any further qualification, a philosopher would reads this as ‘drug use is always harmful’. This is very strong opinion. Depending on the drug in question, it would be very difficult to show that this is the case. So we are now back to ‘Some drug use is harmful’. The argument still works, but the conclusion seems weaker somehow.

With the strong version of premise 1, reduction of drug use is always justified because it always reduces harm. If only some drug use is harmful, then aiming to reduce all drug use means reducing the incidences of drug use that are not harmful as well as the ones that are. Why is this a problem? Take a look at premise 3: ‘Harm should be minimised’. This is where the argument moves from what ‘is’, to what we ‘ought’ to do. Implicit in that statement is that minimising harm is a good reason for doing something. This isn’t to say it’s the only reason to do something, though (I’ll come back to this shortly), but it certainly fills the role of justification in this argument.

If reduction of harm is the only justification for an action then only harmful drug use is the proper target of state intervention. The only way this would not be true is if targeting all drug use – including non-harmful – was an effective way to reduce harms associated with drug use, which seems unlikely. If there are reasons, other than reducing harm, for reducing drug use, then they need to be included too and not left unstated. This might be that drug use, even when not harmful, is somehow immoral or unethical. Such ideas require their own justifications and are likely to be controversial.

Alternatively, someone could argue that all drug use was always harmful. This would require the net of ‘harm’ to be cast exceedingly wide, to the extent that it moved into metaphysical, spiritual or religious territory. This is, in my opinion, not a good way to formulate policy in a modern pluralist democracy, and would face the more serious problem of dealing with multiple subjective and unverifiable judgments regarding non-physical & non-psychological harms.

In any case, pushing too hard with health interventions would seem pointless. To use a specific example, most people in Australia who use cannabis, do not so with enough regularity to be considered dependant. Nor do the bulk of people who use it seem to experience significant mental health issues that can be attributed to their use. If we assume that people caught in possession of cannabis are a representative cross-section of all users, then it follows that most (but not all) people caught will not have significant dependence or mental health issues. If this is true, then any scheme that aims to send everyone caught with a small amount of cannabis to a counsellor or other health intervention would be misguided.

In the Portuguese system, if the defendant is not an addict, and will not submit to treatment or community service, then they can be fined. Without belabouring the point too much, fines have the potential to be regressive in that they impact most heavily upon the least wealthy. The ability to avoid custodial sentences, or even being charged in the first place, is already heavily skewed in favour of those with more disposable income, and any regime that further adds to this should face scrutiny.

Considerations of the practicalities of decriminalisation aside, there is one more flaw in the argument I’ve put forward. Even if all the premises are true (and I’ve argued that they aren’t), I made a tricky, and illegitimate, move right at the end.

Even if you agree that ‘drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible’, it does not follow that the only (or even the best) way to do this is via decriminalisation. A regime of heavy taxes and regulation (such as we have for tobacco), while far from my preferred option, would be in line with that conclusion.

The largest flaw, for me, is still the problem of harm. I can summon no good reasons to think that all drug use is harmful. Nor can I find good reasons for reducing drug use that are not somehow based in the concept of reducing harm.

Base on that, I think a more plausible argument would be:

  1. Some drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore, harmful drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e: via legalisation, education and sensible regulation.

Let me be very clear, decriminalisation would be a vast improvement over the current state of drug policy in Australia. But to argue that it is the best solution – better than legalisation – is to rely upon at least one flawed idea, the worst of which is that drug use is always harmful.

photo credit: Great White Shark3 via photopin (license)

Ice, Straw Men and Decriminalisation

A brief exchange that occurred yesterday (largely via the media) gives a good illustration of a fallacious and incomplete argument, and further demonstrates why the scrutiny of politicians’ words is important.

First published in the Geelong Advertiser, and then on News.com.au, Senior Sergeant Tony Francis was reported (though not directly quoted) as saying that: ‘decriminalising ice could be the best way to fight the deadly drug epidemic sweeping through Australia’. The concept of decriminalising ice was reported as being explored by the Our Town’s ICE Fight taskforce.

Rather than debate the merits of such an idea, I’d like to look at the somewhat curious response from Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash.

Senator Nash responded the same day, with a press release of her own. She reiterates the damaging nature of methamphetamine use, acknowledges that police officers have told her that ‘we cannot arrest our way out of this problem’ and emphasises the need for education. Nothing particularly weird or controversial so far. Then things take a sudden turn as she further states:

However, legalising the drug would send the message that ice is not dangerous. This is the wrong message to send. Legalising what is arguably the worst drug Australia has seen is madness. A Coalition Government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.

This is clear example of a variation of ignoratio elenchi – irrelevant conclusion, known as the straw man argument. Snr Sgt Francis never said ice should be legalised – he said it should be decriminalised. These are two different things. As a side note, I would expect my current students (2nd year B Social Science and B Soc Sci/B Laws) to understand this distinction. So that an Assistant Minister for Health may not, does not strike me as plausible.

So there is Senator Nash’s first problem. Even if her argument against legalizing methamphetamine was sound, it is irrelevant to whether or not decriminalisation is a good idea to the extent that they are not the same thing. For her statement to actually address what Snr Sgt Francis said, she would have to have concluded that ‘A Coalition Government would never decriminalise a drug a drug that destroys relationships’ etc.

There are, usurpingly, further issues with the logic at work here.

Consider this Sen. Nash’s argument.

  1. Ice causes bad things to happen – it drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. Therefore, we should not legalise ice – that is to say, we should not change it from being illegal to legal.

Now, as things stand, it’s not actually a valid argument – this is quite independent from the fact that premise 1 may well be true. There is nothing in the premise about legalisation, so it can’t be in the conclusion – that’s a feature of deductive logic. You need to add or tease out the hidden premises required to make it work. This is easily achieved though.

  1. Ice has negative effect on individuals and communities– it destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.
  2. We should minimise the occurrence of these negative outcomes (including not doing things that increase them).
  3. Something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use.
  4. Therefore, we should not legalise ice.

This argument, unlike the original, is logically valid at least. That is to say, the conclusion actually follows from the premises. The problem now is that we have a premise that might not be true – namely that something being legal rather than illegal increases the negative outcomes associated with its use. Where is the evidence for such a bold assertion? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Senator Nash could not back this up.

I did over-simplify this for the sake of clarity. But it remains that a premise linking legality with increased negative outcomes (or linking illegality with increased positive outcomes) is required to make this argument valid. Until Senator Nash (or one of her staffers) can provide one, no one should feel obliged to accept the correctness of her conclusion.

I can’t help but add an observation on the phrasing of Sen. Nash’s press release. Note that she did not say that the Coalition would never tolerate the availability or legality of a drug that causes such damage. Because that would be untrue – due to the legality and availability of alcohol.

Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt in. This could be a deliberately deceptive dog-whistle to her conservative constituency. After all, if the Assistant Minister for Health did countenance decriminalisation of ice in the future, she would not technically have broken her promise to never legalise it.

Meaning and Marriage

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I pitched the following to The Conversation some time ago, was rejected, and since then I’ve been trying to work out what to do with it. In light of their publication of Kevin Donnelly’s piece arguing against marriage equality, I thought it was time to publish it here as it addresses many of his arguments.

‘We can’t have same-sex marriage, because that’s just not what “marriage” really means.’

This has been a theme of some comments at The Conversation, whenever marriage equality is mentioned. (Update: it actually the entire theme of a recent article published there) On a different scale, but with similar intent, some governments have legislated to define marriage in a certain way – examples include the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 here in Australia and the Defence of Marriage Act (Sept. 21, 1996) in the USA. I would argue that in both cases, appealing to the real meaning of a word is problematic.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how or why particular words seem to have particular meanings. The idea that words should be used in some ways (and not others) is intuitively appealing. But on closer inspection, the idea that particular words mean, or refer to, particular things is sometimes quite tricky. In the case of marriage, it turns out to be particularly unhelpful.

In arguing that we should not enact same-sex marriage legislation because of the real meaning of marriage, the following question must be answered: Why do certain words mean certain things? There are, unsurprisingly, a number of theories. At the more radical end of the spectrum, Saul Kripke argued that there was no such thing as meaning anything by any word. I’m not going to go quite that far, not least because I think Kripke was wrong. It’s worth looking at how we might respond to scepticism about the existence of meaning as it highlights some of the difficulties in using the supposed ‘real’ meaning of marriage to justify denying same-sex couples the right to use that word.

So what is on the table in terms of backing up meaning?

‘Just look at the definition of the word’, some might say. Well, the definition of a word is what it is in virtue of the meaning of the word. If we can’t agree on the meaning, we won’t agree on the definition. On top of that, words are defined in terms of other words – words that we can also disagree about. So while we might start off arguing about the definition of ‘marriage’, we quickly move to disagreements over the meaning of ‘man’. Then we might quibble over the meaning of ‘male’. Every time you use a definition, I can claim that your interpretation of some word in that definition is flawed. If I were willing to extend my scepticism about the meanings of words far enough, there is no limit to how far this argument could go. What we need is an account of meaning that does not rely on our interpretations of other words.

We might look at the history of how a word has been used. So marriage would mean what it meant in the past, and should be used in accordance with how it has been used in the past. This might be tempting for those on the conservative side of this discussion. But if you acknowledge the fact that meanings change, you have to justify why the meaning of marriage should not change in this case. Also, how do you decide which bits of history to privilege? Do we include the history of other some cultures and not others?

Letting history go, some might appeal to the aggregate or majority view of how a whole group of people use a word right now, in the present. This might seem helpful, especially if the majority thinks as you do. But it is problematic nonetheless. If one person can be wrong about what a word means and how it should be applied, then it’s at least possible for a whole community to be similarly mistaken. A group of people thinking that something is true, and that thing actually being true are not necessarily the same thing. I’m not saying that it isn’t either, just that now you need an account of truth as well – we’ll leave that conversation for another day.

This brings us to what might be seen as a more metaphysically loaded theory. Why does marriage mean one man and one woman? Because the correct meaning of that word is ordained by God. This is an appealing solution for some people. However, I think there are two main problems.

The first is that not everyone believes in God, and if they don’t they are not going to accept this argument. Worse, about something like marriage, there is disagreement between different kinds of theists. Let me be very clear, this isn’t about atheists versus believers. Nor is it just about same-sex marriage. If two people both believe themselves to be Christians and they have a disagreement of the form: ‘It’s not really marriage if it wasn’t solemnised by a priest’ or ‘It’s not really marriage if the woman doesn’t submit to the man’, then deciding on what grounds we pick one view over the other is going to be complicated. Going down the road of arguing about which one of these people are ‘real’ Christians is unlikely to lead anywhere constructive. All that has happened is that an additional can of worms has been opened and people of other faiths (or no faith) are no closer to being convinced.

Even if we accepted that a particular God does exist, and that They do have a particular idea of what a word means, we have to be certain that we have correctly interpreted Their meaning. Some might argue that God puts the correct concept directly into our brains, thereby bypassing the problem of interpreting His meaning. But if this were the case, how could we ever make mistakes in how we used this word? I imagine that even very devout people occasionally make mistakes when using words like marriage. If this is true, then it counts as evidence against God putting the concept of marriage into our minds in some direct way. And if that’s true, we are interpreting His word, allowing room for potential error. Humans are finite and fallible. And while an omnipotent being (by definition) could surely imprint a word on our brains so thoroughly and perfectly that we never use it in error, I do not see any evidence that this actually happens.

In light of these difficulties, legislating to protect the real meaning of marriage is difficult. Some might claim that we cannot change how the word marriage is applied in real life, because that new application is supposedly out of line with the real meaning. But this can only be rationally defended to the extent that the account of what constitutes meaning actually works – otherwise your argument is a house built on sand. Clearly, I don’t have all (or any) of the answers. But I would encourage people, whether they are people of faith or not, to think carefully about what philosophical baggage they might need to unpack whenever they talk about the ‘real’ meaning of a word.

photo credit: torbakhopper celebrate good times!!! marriage equality : castro rally, san francisco (2013) via photopin (license)

Philosophers’ Carnival 173

Welcome to the Philosophers’ Carnival #173. This edition contains a selection of some of the best philosophy blog posts to recently hit the web. Not all of these articles are easy reading, but they are all worth tackling nonetheless.

Two posts this month had stage magic as their theme. Tharindra Galahena explores why magic shows are interesting in How does a Rabbit Come out of a Top Hat? : Philosophy in a Magic Show. In Philosophy, Science, and Magic,  Nick Byrd takes a different angle and discusses how learning some things in philosophy (or science) can leave us feeling like we just saw a magic trick as our pre-reflective intuitions are undermined.

This is a feeling I’m familiar with, and still got a hint of when reading some of the posts featured below. Where things appear magical, or as Nick puts it, “they do violence to our assumptions about the world”, philosophers  and philosophy students alike would do well to recall Jonathon Creek‘s approach to solving mysteries – “We mustn’t confuse what’s impossible with what’s implausible.”

I shan’t editorialize any further except to say that if you have anything to say about any of these posts, in agreement or otherwise, please comment – the authors of these blogs will appreciate your interest. I hope you enjoy the carnival.

Posting on The Brains Blog, Brie Gertler presents an interesting discussion of privacy and dispositional beliefs. Implications for issues of privacy and the significance of a belief being occurent are also raised by John Danaher in his  discussion concerning Two Interpretations of the Extended Mind Hypothesis.

Richard Chappell from Philosophy, et cetera wonders if  Mark Schroeder’s Implicature is a satisfactory response to Parfit’s Trivality Objection.

Alexander Pruss explores the puzzle of  grounding overdetermination.

Tristan Haze presents the first of a proposed series of posts on de re modality in De Re Modality and Quantifying In.

Wolfgang Schwarz provides a detailed post on Robert Stalnaker’s account of self-location.

Hilary Putnam continues to generate well reasoned answers to interesting questions. This month we feature his post on Rational Reconstruction.

The authors at PEA Soup were certainly hard at work on their meta-ethics over February. argues that normative necessity is not distinct from metaphysical necessity – or at least that Fine (in Gendler and Hawthorne, Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford, 2002) does not show that it is. Following from this, Finally, Doug Portmore argues that appealing to parsimony is not a good reason to defend metaphysical naturalism against metaphysical pluralism. (For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree with Doug on this).

In considering a cross-over between the Problem of Evil and the Ontological argument , Michael Almeida of The Prosblogion asks, Which Worlds are Possible? Some that are quite bad, apparently.

At Practical Ethics, Carissa Véliz argues that we shouldn’t necessarily hold ethicists to higher moral standards, though we should commend them for intellectual honesty even if they are sometimes morally inconsistent.

In Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility, Paul Boswell  argues that even if an agent is morally blind, they can still be considered to be cruel.

Following from Peter Railton’s Dewy lecture, Eric Schwitzgebel considers Depressive Thinking Styles and Philosophy, wondering if some of the thinking styles associated with depression might actually be an aid to  working as a philosopher.

Finally, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong  asks, Does Philosophy Matter?  (Spoiler Alert: Yes. Again, I’m inclined to agree)

If you have some philosophy, or philosophy-related posts on your blog, and you would like to see included in subsequent carnivals, please go to the Philosophers’ Carnival homepage and make use of the submission form. Thanks for reading.

Ethical Living, Personal Choices and Political Change

I recently read Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change by Derrick Jensen. He argues that that individuals making environmentally appropriate choices as consumers is problematic for a range of reasons. He is particularly hard on the concept of simple living as a political act. I’m going to look at the reasons he gives, and then take the argument a little further. Many people, either explicitly or not, see simple living as a more ethical (or sometimes moral) choice of behaviour. I will show that this individualized concept of ‘ethical living’ is itself ethically problematic, though this conclusion depends on accepting at least some of Jensen’s premises.

So why does personal change not produce the results we might want? Jensen notes several instances where individual consumers, even taken together as a group, are not the major users of a resource or the major contributors to a problem. An example given is that consumers take shorter showers in reaction to water shortages, but that residential water consumption is only a small percentage of the total used – most going to industry and agriculture.  His article does not cite sources as such, but this seems consistent with the figures supplied by the USGS here. A similar situation exists here in Australia with agriculture  (if not manufacturing) using significantly more water than domestic consumers.  The point is that the actions of an individual, in this case, how long your showers are, are not what is causing the problem, directly at least. So in one sense, certain forms of individual action might be just plain ineffective at achieving their stated aims.

I think there is a bit more to this that it seems. In terms of effectiveness, and depending on what conditions you place on a hypothetical scenario, very different outcomes might be likely. Consider the idea, that personal change on that part of individuals can’t affect certain changes because it isn’t individuals who contribute to the bulk of the problem, whereas industry or corporations does. In a nutshell, even if all consumers cut back, industry rolls on and the destruction continues. However, I think this is a problem of degree rather than anything else. I have to ask, what is industry making and who are they selling it to? If enough individuals stopped consuming certain products, then surely the industries that support the manufacture of those products must either adapt or ultimately fail. So why don’t they? A large part of this in the cases mentioned above is that not enough around the world people stop consuming enough different products. Consider water use in the US. To reduce overall water usage, not only do consumers in that country need to use less water, but consumers everywhere need to stop buying products manufactured/grown using that water. Hypothetically, if everyone in the world had shorter showers but still consumed like crazy, we would still face water shortages. Alternatively, if enough people everywhere stopped consuming to a great enough extent, then maybe our showers could be as long as we liked. Where water use in agriculture is concerned, there is a possible Malthusian factor though – maybe we have too many hungry mouths to use less water. I would dispute that this is necessarily the case as it is at least possible that agriculture in the US could make more efficient use of water. A similar situation might obtain for problematic areas such as carbon pollution.  What should be noted is the sheer enormity of such a change in behavior and massive unwinding of our current economic system that it might entail. As I’ve speculated elsewhere though, degrowth does not have to be such a bad thing. Clearly if enough people stopped consuming enough different things, then something would change. So what is exactly is Jensen getting at?

Jensen presents further reasons why the approach of simple living as a political act fails.

The first is that it is based upon the idea that humans inevitably damage their environment. Now, I’m not an expert on whether or not this is, as Jensen states, a ‘flawed notion’. But I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that it isn’t necessarily true.This notion certainty assumes a very one dimensional and non-dynamic conception of ‘environment’ – as if it s a separate thing from us humans.

The second reason is that “it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual”. This is, I feel, at least slightly contentious, because while individuals are not directly responsibly for certain things, they do play a role in maintaining the political status quo. Yes, individual choices as consumers don’t lead to social change – but many people making these choices are quite happy with that arrangement and thus should bear some responsibility.

The third reason is that accepting the definition of ‘consumer’ as a political choice cuts off other legitimate avenues of social and political resistance. I am not sure if it is the case that if people think of their ethical and environmental choices in terms of them being one sort of consumer or another, that this leads to them eschewing other forms of political expression. But if it is the case that you think that your choice of bottled water or footwear makes a bigger difference to the environment than who you vote for, I’m intuitively inclined to say that you are mistaken.

The fourth reason given is a little more complicated. If every action in an industrialized economy is destructive and the best we can come up with is non-participation in this economy, then the ultimate form of non-participation must be death. (That’s my reading of it anyway). I’m not sure how to call this one. But I do appreciate that for some, the symbolism would seem quite compelling.

Jensen’s claim is that simple living cannot produce broad and deep social and political change. I think that if enough people everywhere lived simply enough, that profound changes would occur. In the context of a finite system, this must be at least likely. The point that Jensen is driving at, is whether or not simple living as one’s only political act will lead to widespread change. I’m not sure I can properly test this claim, but offer the following observation. Unless your choice to live simply, in and of itself and without any further political or social action on your part, convinces a lot of other people everywhere to live simply, then the answer must be that your act will not.

If your aim in living simply is to follow something like the Categorical Imperative, then it can seem like your choice is nonetheless justified. This is because if we universalize the choice to consume less, we have (for those who believe in degrowth at least) an acceptable outcome. However, if we universalize the idea that individual choices in consumption would be the only political act one would undertake, then we have a situation where adverse political and social outcomes are possible. Simple living does not, in and of itself, negate the possibility of fascist or feudal political systems – even if it did somehow achieve the desired environmental ends. And that is before we even include the possibility of the choices we make as consumers being subject to duress, structural restriction or manipulation. The disconnect between patterns of consumption and the political situation is a key weakness with the idea that if everyone just buys less everything will be OK. If you do not address the politics, then things might not be.

Likewise, a simplified utilitarian analysis of simple living  as the sole political act indicates that it is possibly problematic (even if we leave out the possibility of problematic politics). If we assume that the this act does not lead to positive changes, then surely it does not do much for ‘utility’, however you want to measure it. The utility of an individual act of living simply is different to the hypothetical utility of everyone living simply.

This is where the other key mistake in reasoning regarding simple living could be. If you live simply enough, then yes, it might well be the case that if everyone did it, that the environmental outcome would be positive. But they don’t, and they won’t just because you do. Unless there is reason to think that your choice will lead to many people making the same choice, you are not actually achieving much at all and it is a form of ‘magical thinking’ to believe otherwise. If you thing you have an ethical or moral obligation to hep the environment and this is the only thing that you do, I would argue that you have not met this obligation.

So there you have it.  If simple living – the act of an individual deliberately consuming less – is the only political act this individual undertakes, there is no guarantee that environmental, social or political changes will follow. This is because a reduction in consumption has to be very widespread to even have a chance at achieving these aims and it is unlikely to become widespread without additional political or social action. In addition, cutting oneself off from political participation, except for choices in consumption, even if it were widely adopted, would be no protection against adverse political and social outcomes. The effects of your choice as an individual, or even a large community, should not be confused or conflated with the hypothetical effects of everyone living as you do.

None of this means that there is no point to living simply and sustainably, and being more mindful of what you consume – it’s a choice that many people enjoy and it does help. But, by itself,  it only helps a little. If you desire political or social change, or if you think you have a deeper ethical or moral obligation to the environment, then (at a minimum) you need to convince more people everywhere to live as you do. This means that your choices as a consumer are no longer your sole political act. And this, I think Jensen would agree,  would be a good thing.