Monday Message Board

It’s time for the regular Monday Message Board when you have your chance to have your say on any topic whatsoever (as always, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please).

I’d be interested if any readers wanted to say something about where and why they read this blog.

Philosophical fictions

Brian Weatherson links to a paper he’s written with the title ‘ imaginative resistance”. It’s about the fact that, whereas it’s easy to imagine fictional events, people and so on, or to imagine real people and things having properties different from those they actually have, it’s very hard to imagine things as morally right if we believe them to be morally wrong.

It seems to me that there’s an ambiguity here and that it’s precisely this ambiguity that is being used in the majority of the fictional examples that are presented as arguments against consequentialism (and, in particular, utilitarianism). The way these examples work is that we are asked to imagine a situation in which a given action has good consequences (when we know that, in reality it has bad consequences). Since this kind of factual shift seems like what we normally do in fiction, it’s assumed [falsely, I claim] that we can do this without damaging our capacity to reason intuitively. But now, it’s pointed out, acceptance of consequentialism would imply that the action is good, when our intuition tells us it’s bad. Hence, consequentialism must be wrong.

All of this is telling us more about the limits of intuitive moral reasoning than about the reasonableness or otherwise of consequentialism.

Plagiarism or hommage?

This Salon review of horror flick 28 Days Later asserts that whereas

. the classic British dystopian sci-fi novels of J.G. Ballard and John Wyndham as influences, and they’re in there, all right …. [but] George A. Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy, specifically the underrated third entry “Day of the Dead,” is so closely emulated here that parts of “28 Days Later” feel like a shameless rip-off.

In fact, the plot, as described in the review, is a carbon copy of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (except with zombies instead of carnivorous walking plants). The film version of this was pretty lame as I recall, but the book was excellent.

My question is, can a film be a shameless ripoff of two completely different sources at the same time? I guess it can be if it takes the plot from one and the cinematography from another. I don’t think I’ll bother going to find out, though.


On the cover of today’s Sun-Herald magazine is a story about the Crown Prince of Nepal who slayed his entire family. My immediate reaction was that the subeditor was asleep on the job, but then I thought that perhaps the language had been regularised and I hadn’t noticed. A search on the Fairfax site showed a dozen other instances of slayed, and Google produced 25 000.

I looked for the formerly standard slew and came up with another problem. There were over 700 000 hits, but most of those on the front page used the word as a synonym for large number. Along with raft used in this way, this is something I don’t remember until recently. My guess is that it comes from idiomatic American usage, and has been popularised by journalists looking for short and snappy synonyms. Rather than do any work to check this, I’ll wait for my readers to set me straight (isn’t blogging great!). Just to complicate things further, there’s an engineering use as a verb roughly equivalent to slide around which has gone through the usual processes of adjectivalisation and nominalisation so that it’s now a generic part of speech.

After this, I checked on slain which is unambiguous and, as a past participle, more prone to regularization than the past tense slew. I got 750 000 hits there, suggesting that slayed is still a minority usage.

What I'm reading

Bad Company: The Cult of the CEO by Gideon Haigh. It’s the latest Quarterly Essay and the first to cover an economic policy issue. Until now, the focus has been on the concerns of the cultural Left (environment, foreign policy, Aboriginal issues). QE encourages responses, and I’m going to submit one on managerialism in general. It’s long, so I’ve included it in the extended entry below. Comments from readers would be much appreciated.

I’m also reading Teach yourself Perl in 21 days by Laura Lemay. I’ve made numerous efforts of this kind over the years, with mixed outcomes. My most successful has been with HTML, also using Lemay’s books. I’m hoping that knowledge of Perl will enable me to improve my blog and even perhaps revive the lost comment threads of past incarnations.

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Taxing times

In the Thursday comments thread “Factory” writes,

One thing I didn’t get about the GST was that it was generally seen as a issue that was owned by the right, but similar tax regimes seem to be the norm in Europe.. hmm..

As I explained here, the reason for this, and for the unpopularity of the GST was that

the Australian advocates of a GST/VAT have tied this change to logically unrelated proposals for a change in the tax mix to give more weight to indirect taxation and for the removal of existing exemptions, notably for food. It is rather as if the advocates of metrication had suggested that the metric system was not worth having unless we also made French the national language and introduced the guillotine.

With the exemption of food, and the associated introduction of the Australian Business Number, the GST has improved the effectiveness of the tax system. The associated income tax cuts made the package as a whole regressive, but not nearly as much so as the previous proposals for a GST (Fightback! and Option C)>

Science and magic

Jason Soon links to this piece by Nicholas Thompson making the point the Republicans are losing the support of scientists, essentially because they ignore expert scientific opinion whenever it doesn’t give them the answers they want (Jack Strocchi also alerted me to this). This blog is running a few months ahead of the Zeitgeist on this one. Back in March, I observed

it’s striking that there is now almost no academic discipline whose conclusions can be considered acceptable to orthodox Republicans. The other social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science) are even more suspect than economics. The natural sciences are all implicated in support for evolution against creationism, and for their conclusions about global warming, CFCs and other environmental threats. Even the physicists have mostly been sceptical about Star Wars and its offspring. And of course the humanities are beyond the pale.

Of course the same is true in Australia, most notably with respect to the global warming ‘sceptics’ (more accurately described as credulous believers in the handful of scientific Pollyannas who tell them wha they want to hear) of the Lavoisier Group. And even creationism is now finding a home among the Quadrant group, though people like McGuinness would no doubt take some sort of Straussian line on this that it’s good for ordinary folk to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, even though sophisticates like Paddy are above such nonsense.

Thought for Thursday

Jason Soon linked to Alan Woods’ review of Shiller’s The New Financial Order a little while ago, so I thought I’d post mine, published a couple of weeks ago in the Fin. I can’t resist bragging that Shiller said it was the best review of the book he had read. It’s much longer than my usual so I’ve put it in the extended entry below.

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Word for Wednesday: Reform

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.