My Quarantine Reading List

By Jason Sorens | April 9, 2020


What are you reading during this time of social distancing? It's a great time to explore new books and ideas. Here's what I'm reading at the moment.

  • Neighborhood Defenders by Einstein et al.
    This is a new book by three Boston University political scientists about the affordable housing shortage in the United States. This shortage is caused by local planning and zoning decisions that raise the costs of building new homes. They want to know why such costly policies happen. Drawing on evidence from Massachusetts, they find that state law and local ordinances give the public many opportunities to challenge new proposed developments. Most local zoning ordinances allow very little new development "by right," especially in places that were built up with "nonconforming" uses long before zoning began in the 20th century. So developers have to seek special permits and variances in order to build, and those things require public hearings. The people who show up to these hearings tend to be nearby neighbors who overwhelmingly oppose the projects. They also tend to be white, older, richer, more likely to vote, and own their own homes. Paradoxically, letting the public have more say in land-use decisions results in outcomes that are not representative of the whole community's interests.
  • Superforecasting by Tetlock
    This book is about the quest to develop experts in forecasting future events. Most pundits you see on TV or read in the newspapers are really bad at forecasting - no better than random chance. But it turns out you can train people to be better forecasters, and Tetlock's Good Judgment Project has created a cadre of people who've cultivated the talent of "superforecasting." What does all this have to do with ethics? The main barriers to accurate forecasting are similar to the obstacles to ethical behavior: self-serving and confirmation biases. The best forecasters are able to set aside their ideological beliefs, self-interest, and what they want to happen, and incorporate all kinds of different evidence into coming up with precise probability distributions over future outcomes. So far I haven't read anything here that is really new beyond what I'd already seen in a talk by him, but if you haven't encountered this work before, it's highly recommended. By the way, here is what the superforecasters are saying about COVID-19.
  • Ethical Intuitionism by Huemer
    I've just started this one, so I'm looking forward to digging into the argument. Huemer believes that trying to figure out ethical theories - deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and so on - is a waste of time. Instead, people should trust their direct, intuitive judgments about right and wrong. To the extent intuitions logically conflict, you should go with your stronger intuition. I agree that intuition plays a role in any philosophy, but I'm not sure intuition always gives us clear and reliable guidance. And can't we have intuitions about moral theories themselves, not just particular principles? I'm looking forward to seeing how Huemer addresses my concerns.
  • The Palliser Novels by Trollope
    This is a series of four novels that all relate somehow to British politics, by a Victorian-era writer. (He is most famous for the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, He Knew He Was Right, and The Way We Live Now.) At present I am on The Eustace Diamonds, which is dominated by a female antihero. Trollope draws an astounding portrait of an unscrupulous, deceptive, manipulative young woman who is also extremely beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy. If she sounds dangerous, she is!

Lizzie Eustace was very false and bad and selfish, -- and, we may say, very prosperous also; but in the midst of all she was thoroughly uncomfortable. She was never at ease. There was no green spot in her life with which she could be contented. And though, after a fashion, she knew herself to be false and bad, she was thoroughly convinced that she was ill-used by everybody about her.