Monthly Archives: June 2007

Blair has a point

I’ve learned in the past that if I say anything at all positive about Tony Blair, people rush to say I’m defending the war in Iraq. (Or that if I defend intervention in the broad sense I’m defending his military interventions in the narrow sense – guilty party here.) With that warning in mind, Blair wrote something quite interesting in a valedictory piece in the Economist.

It is said that by removing Saddam or the Taliban—regimes that were authoritarian but also kept a form of order—the plight of Iraqis and Afghans has worsened and terrorism has been allowed to grow. This is a seductive but dangerous argument. Work out what it really means. It means that because these reactionary and evil forces will fight hard, through terrorism, to prevent those countries and their people getting on their feet after the dictatorships are removed, we should leave the people under the dictatorship. It means our will to fight for what we believe in is measured by our enemy’s will to fight us, but in inverse proportion.

Here I think is the worry. From a consequentialist point of view, there is a danger that our willingness to confront wrongdoing is going to be inversely proportional to how serious that wrongdoing is, if it is the case that by doing something we confront the possibility of retaliation. So imagine you have two heads of organised crime. One is a nasty S.O.B who has killed many people. The second is even worse, but in addition, he has made it clear to the authorities that if he is captured, his heavies will wreak vengeance in a nasty, bloody way.
If you take only take into account the consequences of capturing or not capturing, it seems you have less reason to go after the worse criminal, because the consequences of doing so will be more blood. Hence the worse guy is in a strange way rewarded for being so bad.
Of course, you could take wider consequences (as rule consequentialists do) and say that in the long run, society suffers if we shy away from dealing with the nasty guys in this way. But it’s not clear that move will always work.
So, Blair’s point is that if we allow the brutality of the resistance of baddies a reason not to confront them, we actually end up treating people better the worse they are. And that’s kind of crazy.
Except that, of course, you can’t just ignore that factor either. You don’t try to take on a nuclear armed North Korea, because it would be catastrophic if Kim Jong-Il retaliated. So, actually, in a strange way again, sometimes, if someone gets too bad and powerful, you do have to back off.
What does this prove? Nothing. I’m not trying to prove a point, simply outline a tricky moral dilemma. My feeling is that this is a good example of how both straightforward consequentialist and duty-based moral frameworks are not complex enough to deal with the real world. We have to think about both consequences of action and what the right thing to do is irrespective of immediate outcome. And, to use a phrase which is becoming a bit of mantra with me lately, There Is No Algorithm for determining how these (and other) considerations are balanced.
Hence Blair has a point; not Blair has justified the war in Iraq.

Moral distance

I promise to lay off the heavy moral theory in a moment, but some of the replies to the post Beggars’ Beliefs now have me thinking about what some philosophers call ‘moral distance’.   Part of the problem is that physical or temporal distance ought not to make a moral difference, but somehow it makes some sort of difference.  It can seem like an excuse for inaction.  You’d have a lot of explaining to do if you walked past a drowning child, but we don’t seem too bothered about someone in trouble far away.  The moral features of the case of the child right in front of you and the child in Africa can seem about equally demanding.  So why do we think that you would be something of a monster if you walk past a drowning child but a lot less blameworthy if you do nothing about those in trouble far away?

It’s tempting to say that you can’t save all those distant, starving children, but you could save the one right in front of you.  But that doesn’t explain my failure to do something about even one or two children far away.  It’s also tempting to mention psychological, social or evolutionary facts in this connection.  But knowing about those facts can help us override them, maybe act differently, listen to the better angels of our nature.  Is there a moral difference in the two cases that I’m missing?  What I’m after is an argument for a difference, and it’s what I can’t seem to find.

Hard to pin down? Moi?

I had a good time talking at the Skeptics in the Pub last night. My topic was being sceptical of scepticism, which in practice meant talking a fair bit about issues such as the principle of charity and “intellectual empathy”, which just happened to be what my last post here was about.
At the end, however, the last question was from one of the organisers. On some kind of web forum where the talk had been mentioned, someone had said that I would be “a good speaker but hard to pin down”. What did I feel about that?
Obviously, I had no quarrel with the first part! But hard to pin down? Am I? And if so, is that a bad thing?
So, on the train home (a late one because the discussion was too interesting to leave in time for the civilised one I originally planned to get) I started thinking about good and bad ways in which people can be hard to pin down.
The bad ways are quite obvious, I think. Being slippery as a means to disguise the lack of precision of clarity in your own mind is an old trick.
A different kind of unpindownability concerns commitment, whether it’s to meet at a certain place or time, pledge yourself to your beloved or say exactly what it is you’ll do if you get elected.
However, on the good side, I thought of Bernard Williams. I dug out the transcript for the interview I did with him shortly before his death for TPM (now in What More Philosophers Think.)
“I’ve been criticised for not having a position,” he said. He went on:

There are two subjects on which I’ve had more or less positions, I guess. One is personal identity a long time ago and another, by far the most “position” is about internal and external reasons. I do have a view about that and I still hold it. Needless to say that generates the sort of literature graduate students love because there’s a position and who can attack it and break it down. Interestingly some cases where I’ve merely wanted to open up a subject something has been ascribed to me which is usually nonsense, like, for instance what is now called the “integrity objection” to utilitarianism.
[…] In general I guess that because I think that philosophy starts from realising we don’t understand our own activities and thoughts, I guess what I think most about is opening up ways showing people that we don’t understand our own thoughts, and then suggesting ways in which we might get a better hold of it.

That’s the kind of unpindownability I like. It’s not because of any evasion, it’s because what one is trying to do is get people to think better and clearly about difficult issues, without pretending to resolve them and have a clear position yourself. I think that’s an important philosophical task.
Alas, I am no Bernard Williams and the reason I am sometimes hard to pin down is because I’m just not a great original thinker with thought-through positions on the great issues, so often all I can do is provoke. If me not being easy to pin down is a virtue, then it’s one born of necessity.
Incidentally, although the Skeptics were a nice bunch, I was told by a rather drunk one at the end, that some people at the back were not impressed by my choice of attire. The t-shirt I was wearing was not only an unflattering colour, apparently, it also drew attention to my “man boobs”. Ouch.

Beggars’ Beliefs

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche tells us that, ‘Beggars should be abolished:  it is irritating to give to them and it is irritating not to.’  There’s a part of the way he puts this point which can get you thinking.  If you live in a large city, there’s a chance that you will be hit up for spare change several times a day.  If you live, well, anywhere with the knowledge of what’s going in in some parts of our world, there’s a chance that a bit of your conscience hits you up for spare change too, maybe tells you that a donation to Oxfam is in order.  The charitable demand is always in there somewhere, if not right in front of you then bubbling away just behind your day to day concerns.  You can either do something about suffering or not.  Why might Nietzsche or anyone else find both helping and not helping difficult?

Doing something about suffering can be a bother — you can get your hands dirty, maybe spend more than you would like on other people, possibly miss out on some opportunities.  This stuff is beside the point.  The real trouble, you can sometimes think, is that doing something about suffering can diminish the person you are trying to help.

Doing nothing about suffering can seem much easier — it’s certainly what most of humanity does.  But in walking past or not donating, you can maybe feel that it’s you who is somehow diminished.

Getting a grip on the sense in which both parties are diminished isn’t easy.  Finding a way through that to a course of action can seem much harder.  What’s easy to see, though, is that getting to a conclusion is a matter of some urgency.  It’s been said before that you can’t eat ethics, and probably the practical demand for action easily trumps what can seem like silly philosophical to-ing and fro-ing.  So what’s the right way to think about all of this?

Another world record

Ok, let’s start a fight here.
I’m afraid I think Jeremy’s last post might set a new record in uncharitable reading of texts! I think it’s a general rule of thumb that when a text looks totally absurd, you should ask whether or not you have just read it inappropriately.
I’m not defending Aslan totally, but I do think it it pretty clear that he is not writing in an analytic, philosophical style. So how could you read the various absurdities Jeremy picks out?

“1. Myths are always true.”
Allow a little overstatement (“always”) and I think what Reza means is that myths last because they are stories humans tell each other which capture truths about the human condition etc. In that sense, they are always true – they express truths. If this is what is meant, then to talk about their “propositional content” totally misses the point.
Jeremy then says (point 2) “Myths now convey truths, which of course is entirely different to the claim that they are true.” Only if you’re reading or writing in a precise (western?) philosophical way. Perhaps Aslan should have done so, but I think it’s clear he didn’t.

“To ask whether Moses, etc… is to ask totally irrelevant questions”.
Yes it is true that millions believe these stories are literally true, but presumably Aslan’s case is that this is a mistake. I personally think that it is still worth pointing out that they are not literally true, but the thrust of Aslan’s argument is that this would make us focus on the wrong things. Not obviously absurd.

“4. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean”? – That’s so clearly rubbish that I can’t be bothered to argue against it.”
Indeed! That’s the case being made: this is the right way to read religious texts, for meaning, not historical accuracy. Again, I think Jeremy is leaping on a sloppy way of expressing it (there are of course other questions about religion) and not reading for its clear intent – which is to focus on the role of religious stories, not all matters of religion.

“5. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid”
Yes this is annoyingly slack, but the point I’m guessing that is trying to be made is that if all religion requires interpretation – that nothing is just given – then there is no limit on possible interpretations. “Valid” is the wrong word, sure, but you can see what is meant when we get on to the next point:

“6. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others. – Beautifully done. So we have unreasonable, but valid interpretations; and reasonable, valid interpretations. Excellent.”
Yes – bad use of word valid, but I can see what is meant. Rather than this contradicting what preceded it, I think it makes clearer the odd use of “valid”.

I’m sorry but I think we need the intellectual imagination to sympathetically try to see what is meant when people write in a style which is from a philosophical point of view sloppy and imprecise, It’s very easy to list “gotchas” on the basis of the looseness: more interesting and challenging is to try to see if there is anything behind it.
Sorry of this repeats comments on the post – I’ve read this on the road and am replying quickly because I think this matters. I don’t want philosophy used a tool to score points off people we are not really trying to understand. If Jeremy is really trying to understand Aslan, then I fear for his powers of intellectual empathy!
(This is uncharacteristically blunt and I hereby concede that having been so rude, Jeremy has the right to attempt to crush me if he so wishes! However, don’t pick holes in any loose expression of my ideas – this is a hurried blog post, not a honed treatise. And remember I’m not saying Aslan is right.)

Some kind of world record

I’m currently reading No God But God by Reza Aslan. I think I have found some competition for the BHA pollsters in the contest to find the world’s sloppiest thinkers.

Here’s the offending section from the book’s Prologue:

It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean”?

[…] After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.

Okay, so let’s be charitable here. I think what he’s trying to argue is that myths express truths about the human condition, which sounds plausible, but actually is pretty vacuous. But look at what he actually claims:

1. Myths are always true – Right. No they are not. Myths have propositional content. It is this content that makes them false. Also, if Aslan is correct, it seems that one is forced to conclude that stories of the supernatural are always true. Which is daft. (Presumably he must think that there is more to the definition of the word myth than it signifies a story of the supernatural. Otherwise, we can all invent myths which must be true.)

2. Whatever truths they convey – Ah, nice slide away from the original assertion here. Myths now convey truths, which of course is entirely different to the claim that they are true.

3. To ask whether Moses, etcis to ask totally irrelevant questions – Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. These are entirely relevant questions to ask given that millions of people believe those propositions to be literally true. And, in any case, there’s a hint of self-contradiction here. The only way to determine whether or not the propositional content of myth is relevant is to ask whether it is true. Because if it were true, then clearly it would be relevant. Actually, there might be something interesting here. If Aslan thinks that the propositional content of myth might be factually true, then presumably he has to conclude that it is relevant to ask whether it is true. So, for example, if God did indeed pour through the lips of Muhammad then the question of whether this is true is vital. It makes all the difference. He presumably then must have concluded that the propositional content of religious myth is false? If so, he has asked himself questions which by his own terms are irrelevant…

4. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean”? – That’s so clearly rubbish that I can’t be bothered to argue against it. (I seem to be losing patience here.)

5. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid – No, no, no. You can’t mean that. Religion might involve interpretation, be built on top of interpretation, but it can’t be interpretation. There is something rhetorically interesting going on here, though. If Aslan had written: All religions make use of interpretation, and all interpretation is valid, then it would have left open the possibility that religion is invalid – whatever this means – because there would be more to religion than interpretation. But by equating religion to interpretation he closes this gap. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help since religion clearly isn’t interpretation by definition, and the claim that all interpretations are valid is empty.

6. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others – Beautifully done. So we have unreasonable, but valid interpretations; and reasonable, valid interpretations. Excellent.

Okay, that’s enough of this.

The question I’m always left with after reading this kind of stuff is why it isn’t picked up at the proof reading, or editing, stage?

I’m not wrong about this, am I? It is woeful, isn’t it?

Commercial censorship

There’s a difficult philosophical issue behind some ideas I mentioned in a recent post to the Guardian’s arts blog on what the film-maker and writer Xialou Gou calls “commercial censorship”. This is when certain things can’t be said because the people who fund films or publish books deem them unsuitable. Here’s a key part of what I wrote:

Although my first reaction was to think “censorship” was entirely the wrong word here, there is something insidious about this kind of intellectual filtering which can be as pernicious as overt prohibition. But what’s most disturbing about it is that, ultimately, it’s democratic. In a free market, no one will not produce, screen or publish anything that people are willing to pay for.
What Xialou called commercial censorship is hence indirectly nothing more than the expression of the will of the majority of the people. Whereas political censorship is top-down, commercial censorship is really bottom-up. It’s self-censorship of what society doesn’t want to hear.

I still think censorship is the wrong word, but the phenomena itself is still troubling. Memes have also been on my mind lately because of an interview with Sue Blackmore I’m (supposed to be) writing up for the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine. One of the key ideas in memetics is that ideas spread not because they are true but because they are readily copied. Of course, commerce is all about producing what people want, and so can be copied and passed on at great profit. Truth isn’t a great motivating factor here.
Put these two thoughts together and you get a worry that we really should be concerned about how ideas are or are not spread, and hence also about how commerce influences this. I’m not sure what the upshot is, but I do wonder whether many of us who care about truth and reason and such things put too much emphasis on producing good arguments for why we are right to do so. But if they do matter, we need to spread the truth meme, and to do that maybe we do need tackle issues such as those of “commercial censorship”.
The irony is that writers who go on most about how advanced capitalism has a pernicious, excluding affect on the transmission of ideas tend to have a fairly relaxed attitude of what truth is. Meanwhile, those on the “truth matters” team (but not necessarily the authors of the book of almost that name – I can’t speak for them!) tend to talk very little about the social mechanisms that control discourses of truth. I think we’re missing a trick.

Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism (Digested)

#6 in the series of which AC Grayling said, “I’ve never heard of it”.

What is existentialism? It is the use of pessimistic vocabulary to give apparent depth to shallow concepts. Dark is deep: this is our legacy.
There is an expression, “You never know”. There is also an expression, “The future is uncertain.” I prefer to say, “We must live without hope.” Alternatively, I say we live in despair. Either way, it makes you want to take up smoking, doesn’t it?
Any self-help book will tell you that many people don’t like to take responsibility for their lives and will sometimes pretend they have less choice than they do. I prefer to say that we suffer anguish.
God doesn’t exist and there is no moral code we can take off the metaphysical shelf and follow. That could sound positive and liberating, but I prefer to say we are abandoned.
People say that existentialism is a pessimistic doctrine. How can they think that when I tell them it’s all about anguish, abandonment and despair? It’s the most optimistic philosophy there is.
People say that if you are an existentialist, you can do whatever you want. Let me tell you a story. In the war, a young boy came to me and said, “Look, my mother needs me but so does my country. What should I do?” I said, “Don’t ask me. Work it out for yourself.” That’s why I’m France’s number one thinker and Camus isn’t.
Whatever you choose, you must choose. That sounds like a tautology, so let me rephrase it: You are condemned to be free. Still a tautology, but suitably bleak and deep sounding, so who cares?
In conclusion, I may look deeply serious, but inside, I’m having a laugh.

Moments and Minutes

I went to an unusually thought-provoking comedy show on Sunday.  The comedian was talking about his life flashing before his eyes at his death.  (It was actually very funny.)  He could tell, sometimes, that certain moments in his life really would make ‘the final reel’:  watching fireworks as a kid with his father, seeing the sunlight hit the surf just so, a girl and a laugh and a glance.  Other stuff just fills up the minutes:  eating breakfast, queuing for a bus, brushing teeth, all the tedious stuff of a life measured out with coffee spoons.  I have a feel for the distinction – it strikes a chord – but how does it work exactly?  What’s the difference between a moment and a minute?

There is the thought that moments are significant events in a life, while minutes are just more of the same.  Sometimes moments are large events, but they don’t have to be.  Maybe the laugh and the glance were part of the moment you met the love of your life, but moments might just be part of a generally insignificant experience.  It might have been just one glance of many which somehow struck you differently or more deeply.  Moments can be otherwise mundane minutes, somehow seen afresh or elevated.  But they need not involve fireworks, emotional or otherwise.

I am tempted to say that a part of a moment, as opposed to a minute, is the realization that it’s a moment, not a minute.  I also know that’s no help.  Any suggestions?

Good heavens – some decent atheist drama

I don’t normally point to pieces I wrote elsewhere, but this on on the Guardian’s arts blog would have been posted here, were it not for the fact that I had the opportunity to extend its readership by posting there and linking here.
If this is a major breach of blogiquette, let me know, but also explain why, since I might not acept the standard rules!