I just listened to this episode of Freakonomics Radio podcast the other day, which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from, and I think you’ll love it too. Freakonomics Radio is hosted full time by Stephen Dubner, one of the two authors of the famous book of the same name, published in 2005, with occasional guest hosting by its other author Steven Levitt. The book and podcast consider individual, social, and political situations from the view that human behavior is best explained in terms of the incentives that motivate us.
The podcast episode I’m recommending here is called ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ and I can hardly think of a more timely question. As Syrians fleeing death and destruction flee their war-torn country, we are invited to consider this question: do nations’ rights to maintain secure borders trump (how funny …no, actually ironic that I need that particular word right here!) the individual human right to survive and to flourish?
I love Freakonomics, despite the fact that it adopts, at times, a dismissive and even scornful tone towards philosophy (as do some of my other favorite podcasts), but that’s okay: there’s so much good information and clearheaded processing of it that its informative values trumps (groan) what might be philosophically lacking. After all, I believe, philosophy is at its best when it’s informed and disciplined by evidence, and it’s such a firmly established, fascinating, and eminently useful discipline that it can withstand critique and dismissiveness from economists, science enthusiasts, and so on. But to my edification and delight, the guest in this episode, Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a spirited defense of philosophy almost right off the bat.
Here’s a little excerpt for those of you in a hurry, but for the rest, I recommend you just skip this and go listen to the whole thing. Enjoy!
DUBNER: …As much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.
TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. …
DUBNER: …I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.’” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.
TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else …Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. …
Sources and inspiration:
Dubner, Stephen. ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’, Freakonomics Radio podcast, episode 231.