Nicholas Maxwell’s bad moral philosophy
July 9, 2013 Leave a comment
Nicholas Maxwell seems to like to think of himself as a great moral thinker, but actually he is has no good insights and seems to want to set himself up as a Platonic philosopher king.
Let’s start with his vision of one supposed problems in current affairs. He talks about a “long-standing problem of the rapid growth of the world’s population” (p. 4 of this paper). In other words, more people = badness. The truth is that high birth rates happen in dirt poor places that have bad institutions such as oppressive and corrupt governments, poor protection of property rights and that sort of thing. (Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist discusses this particular issue well but I don’t endorse it in general.) It is quite revealing that he claims this is a matter of population. He doesn’t see every person as a potential creative problem solver who could make the world a better place in all sorts of major or minor ways. Rather he sees their existence as problematic and acts as an apologist for their oppressors by not even mentioning the existence of said oppression.
On reading a summary of his political agenda it becomes clearer that Maxwell is even worse than this disgraceful stance makes him sound:
Natural science needs to create committees, in the public eye, and manned by scientists and non-scientists alike, concerned to highlight and discuss failures of the priorities of research to respond to the interests of those whose needs are the greatest – the poor of the earth – as a result of the inevitable tendency of research priorities to reflect the interests of those who pay for science, and the interests of scientists themselves.
This is terribly muddled. First, science can’t reflect both what the poor currently want, what scientists currently want and what the rich currently want. For example, many poor people want to use fossil fuels and Maxwell thinks this will cause some sort of catastrophe as a result of global warming. What would be needed is a serious discussion of the political economy of current scientific institutions. Maxwell apparently has no interest in this since he doesn’t discuss it.
Rather, he wants to create a world academic government and a world government:
The world’s universities need to include a virtual world government which seeks to do what an actual elected world government ought to do, if it existed. The virtual world government would also have the task of working out how an actual democratically elected world government might be created.
Democratic institutions are problematic enough in a single country where politicians can be relatively more accountable without engaging in the pretence that such an institution can work for a world government. There is also a lot of disagreement on basic issues like whether it’s a good idea to murder Jews in the world (to judge by propaganda put out by the Palestinian Authority) never mind on complex issues like global warming. Maxwell apparently has nothing to say about any of these problems.
Maxwell is not wise or insightful. He is apparently totally oblivious to many of the most serious problems facing the world and of serious problems in his own worldview.