Monthly Archives: November 2007

All Eyes on Sudan

img_1258.jpgMaybe you’ve heard the story about the British teacher living in Khartoum who’s been sentenced to 15 days in prison for letting her class of 7-year-olds name their teddy bear “Muhammad.” How terrible, how unfair! Of course it’s terrible and it’s unfair. But why does the media love this story so much?

Khartoum has been in the business of mass murder for the last couple of years. In the western region of the country, Darfur, up to 400,000 citizens have been killed and 2.5 million people displaced into massive refugee camps. How unfair to serve 15 days in prison for naming a teddybear “Muhammad.” But how unfair to be killed or raped or mutilated for…absolutely nothing. But that’s a story that doesn’t capture much media attention.

I fear the teddy bear story excites and amuses us. We delight in our sense of superiority and our outrage. It’s fun to find yet another example of “How Religion Poisons Everything.” Score another point for Christopher Hitchens! The mass murder of Darfurians on the other hand…well, who can even understand what it’s about? The perpetrators are Muslim. The victims are Muslim. It’s about oil, land, power, rival rebel factions, racism, the 20-year civil war in southern Sudan, but that’s too much to hold on to.

It’s hard to understand what’s going on, plus the events are so grotesque we can barely believe they’re happening. That’s one of the reasons the response to Darfur has been insufficient, according to the book Not On Our Watch (Prendergast and Cheadle). It’s too awful…it can’t be happening…let’s think about something else.


Then there’s the sheer scale. 400,000 dead has to be a bigger problem than one woman in jail for 15 days, right?Apparently it’s just the opposite, subjectively speaking. There was a great Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times not long ago that showed people care less about bigger problems. Psychologists tested out two appeals for charitable contributions. In one, a hungry child was the whole story. In the other, the child’s problems were set into a larger context. Yes, the first appeal got a greater response.

Another study was even more surprising. In this case, one appeal talked about a single hungry child. The second talked about eight hungry children. People contributed less money to help the eight than to help the one!

So sure, let’s feel bad for the woman sitting in prison for 15 days (and the class of 7-year-olds which will surely find themselves with a new teacher). But let’s be serious. There’s a genocide taking place in Sudan right now!

Pictures from this great site.  (1) Janjaweed militia, (2) Darfuri girl (just one!!!) in Chad refugee camp.

Climate change and future people

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just published the final part of its fourth assessment report on climate change.  It’s worth a read, and you can find it here.  The UN calls on the West to reduce carbon emissions by a third by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050.  It’s a tall order.  Certainly people are already suffering from the effects of climate change.  There is also a lot of talk about saving future generations from ecological disaster.  It’s here, in talk of sustainability and future people, that a particuarly annoying objection sometimes surfaces in philosophical quarters.  I want it to die the death, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

The thought is owed to Parfit, and it’s called the identity problem (or, confusingly, the non-identity problem).  Here’s the gist of it (and I don’t know Parfit as well as I should, so bear with me).  Personal identity is a radically contingent thing.  If an alarm hadn’t gone off when it did, if someone missed a bus, if the lighting and the music weren’t quite right, the particular sperm and ovum required to make you wouldn’t have met, and you just never would have been.  The ecological policies we adopt will have all sorts of consequences, not just for alarms and busses, but on who ends up existing. 

Suppose we pursue business as usual, and continue pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere willy-nilly.  We wreck the planet and leave to those who come after us a very unpleasant world.  Given the contingency of personal identity, the people alive in that unpleasant future wouldn’t have existed had we adopted greener policies.  So they’ve got no grounds for complaint about the world we leave to them.  Had we not chosen the environmentally unfriendly path, they never would have existed.  So the lives of future generations need not figure into our refleciton on the environment.

That can’t be right, can it?  As a first pass, it seems to me that reflection about action on climate change depends a lot on right and wrong, responsibility, justice, in short, on doing the right thing.  When we think about the morally right course of action, say how we treat a friend, what we don’t think about is whether or not that person has grounds to object to our course of action.  We think about their pleasures and pains, their preferences, their hopes and needs, maybe guiding moral principles or maxims and so on.  The identity problem seems to miss this fact about reflection on ethical action generally and on the moral dimension of action on climate change in particular.  We want to do what’s right,  and that’s something other or more than ensuring that others have no grounds for objection.

This is all still a little hazy in my head, but a number of nearby analogies are getting me going.  There is a distinction between doing the right thing and doing something locally unobjectionable.  This doesn’t quite fit the case of climate change, but it can make the distinction between what’s right and what’s locally unobjectionable stand out to you.  Suppose a woman drinks, a lot, and harms her unborn baby.  Maybe that child has no grounds to object — she wouldn’t be who she is had her mother not hit the bottle.  But harming the unborn baby is not the right thing to do, whether or not that baby has grounds for objection.  So too, lumping future generations with a dangerous climate is not the right thing to do, even if those generations have no grounds for objection.

Never Let Me Go

neverletmego.jpgI have a Writer’s Choice essay at Normblog today, I’m happy to report. It’s about the novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. (I also had a profile at Normblog not long ago.)

[Warning! There are spoilers in the essay, as Potentilla points out in the comments.  And probably also spoilers in the comments!]

If you follow the link, you’ll discover I made a connection between the novel and an issue about animals. And then you might wonder “What’s with the animal obsession?”, since I often post about animals here. Answer: I’m working on a book about animals–so Animals ‘R’ Us, these days. (Or maybe I should say I’m working on a manuscript…it won’t become a book unless I finish it and work on a publisher).

I think the nature and status of animals is one of the Big Questions of philosophy and not merely a little applied ethics topic suitable for animal lovers. Yes, there’s the issue of the way animals are treated in contemporary factory farms, which is a serious and urgent matter. But the nature of animals has always been a philosophical topic. From ancient philosophy onward, the question of the nature of “man” (as they say) has always been next door to questions about animals. How are we different or the same?

The animals issue also strikes me as Big because animals are in a grey area, and grey areas are difficult. We really barely know how to treat other folks just like ourselves, so we are really in puzzling territory when we try to figure out an ethics for the rest of the world. What (on earth) should we do with unlike entities–fetuses, paintings, rainforests, lions, tigers, bears?

So much for the explanation. What I didn’t mention in the essay is that Never Let Me Go is just plain “can’t put it down,” five-stars great. I also loved Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day (much more interesting than the movie). If you have novels to recommend, I’m all ears.

Philosophy saves the world?

Guest blogger Antonia Macaro reports from UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day event.

World Philosophy Day has been and gone again, and again it seems to have left little trace in the UK. It was apparently celebrated in 80 countries, with the main international event taking place in Istanbul last week, starting with an an opening dinner on Wednesday evening and winding up on Friday lunchtime.

Despite its neglect in the UK, UNESCO World Philosophy Day has by now become a fixture on the third Thursday of November (although confusingly the Istanbul event spanned the fourth). Uprooted from its homeland in Paris where it all started in 2002, it has become an itinerant event, held in Chile in 2005 and Morocco in 2006. Next year it will be Italy’s turn. This time it was co-hosted by UNESCO, the UNESCO National Commission of Turkey and the Philosophical Society of Turkey.

But why a world philosophy day? According to the official blurb, its main aim is “to call public attention to the enlightening role that philosophy can play in public life and in facing world problems.” The terms in which philosophy was commended at the event were even more exalted, the gist being that by promoting dialogue and independent thinking, the teaching of philosophy can significantly contribute to the establishment of world peace and democracy. UNESCO seems to have a very high opinion of the powers of philosophy to change the world.

Fittingly, the “day” consisted mostly of a number of round tables with titles like “the role women philosophers could play in shaping the future of humanity” and “what can philosophy contribute to a more human governance of the world?”. It was a shame therefore that the “round tables”, almost all read presentations, didn’t show much evidence of the dialogue that is supposed to be philosophy’s main tool in the transformation of the world.

I’m sure world philosophy day is a good thing – it brings together philosophers from around the world, it may well raise the profile of philosophy, and create more interest in it in the local community. It did seem to be well attended by students. But as I went from round table to round table I couldn’t help feeling that this faith in the powers of philosophy might be a trifle exaggerated: surely we have a lot of counterexamples? Can philosophy really change the world? And is world philosophy day really the best way of increasing its chances of doing so?

The Holocaust and the Argument from Evil

I just spent a few days in Washington D.C., mainly visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum. What an amazing place–both extremely informative and extremely horrifying. Before going, I read Elie Wiesel’s memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Night. From a philosophical perspective it’s an especially interesting book because of the way Wiesel’s experiences lead him to thoughts about God.

I went through the museum thinking a lot about Wiesel and people like him. Distant relatives of mine were also pious Jews in Eastern Europe. So I walked through the museum thinking about them, and about their religious outlook.

Before the Nazis arrive, Wiesel is a devout 15 year old boy studying the Torah and Kabalah. His piety is smashed out of him by the horrific things he soon witnesses and experiences. The Holocaust Museum puts these things on display with total candor. (Wiesel was one of the founders of the museum.)

On the floor devoted to the “Final Solution” the museum displays live footage of the “mobile killing units” that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union. The museum has tastefully hidden video monitors behind high walls, so the visitor can choose to look or not look. I made myself look at Jewish men, women and children lining up naked next to a long, deep ditch of naked corpses, being shot, and toppling over into the pile.

Wiesel’s stance is not exactly disbelief, but close to it. Hitler kills his parents and his sister, but also undermines his faith. Sometimes he seems to express anger at God, sometimes outright non-belief. But the constant is that he thinks there’s no explanation why God permitted the Holocaust.

I think it ought to be a rule that no one should be allowed to debate the so-called “problem of evil” without first spending 2-3 hours in the Holocaust Museum. Not that 2-3 hours immersed in another genocide (Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia) won’t do, but the Holocaust Museum does such an incredible job of putting all the facts on display.

Let’s see–a good God was watching over this depravity and could have stopped it, but treasured the free will of the perpetrators too much to do so. That might fly if you’re sipping tea in a philosophy lounge somewhere, but just doesn’t make sense as you watch that video behind the wall. Um, what about the victims? Did torture and then death just maybe limit their free will?

Then there’s the silliness about how God allowed six million deaths because of all the virtue that was prompted as a result. The Holocaust Museum doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. We all know of the heroism of a small number of people who responded to these atrocities, but the museum makes it clear the heroes were in a very small minority. Mostly the world just stood by and watched.

Then we get the Christian-flavored story about how the suffering of the Jews gave rise to the “resurrection”–the redemptive creation of the nation of Israel. But would we really see Israel’s existence as such a great good if it hadn’t become necessary as an outcome of the Holocaust?

The Holocaust Museum obliterates facile stories about why God must permit evil. But then, I’d also recommend the trip to anyone who thinks the problem of evil is a one-way ticket to atheism. It fascinates me the way Elie Wiesel comes so close to saying flatly there is no God, but never quite says it. The Jews of Eastern Europe found joy and cohesion in their religious experience. Can I really say the survivors should have allowed Hitler to claim their parents and children and friends and their faith as well?

Again, there’s the philosophy lounge answer–yes. The problem of evil is insuperable. There can be no God. Then there’s the answer that people come to from their own personal experience. Elie Wiesel’s writing is full of tension. Belief is impossible for him, but non-belief is impossible. There’s no easily-defined religious outlook that can entirely satisfy him.

I came out of the museum with an armful of books, including one about Elie Wiesel and theology, but if I understand him correctly, his stance is one I have to respect.

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On a lighter but still-Jewish note: I discovered a cool website by reading Normblog today.

Atheism: An Apology

Disagreement is so much more fun than agreement. Tim Crane gave a great example of this at the third annual Bentham Lecture when, as a speaker invited by (among others) the British Humanist Association, he rubbished the whole idea of humanism, even going so far as to compare the BHA’s logo with that of a Gay Christian Network to illustrate the similarities between religious and humanist movements. Ouch.
Tim said many true things and while he wasn’t attacking a straw man, I’m not sure he took on the best version of humanism either. But perhaps he didn’t need to, as he was really addressing humanism as a (wannabe) mass movement.
My book on atheism was one of his targets, although he did balance a negative comment with one positive one, so I can’t complain too much. The criticism was one I thought was answerable, but is not straightforward. Tim argued that atheism is “boring” and negative – non-belief in God – and cannot be framed as positive worldview in any way.
Now in my book I argued the opposite. My reasons are, in summary, these. It is true that as a concept, analysed analytically, atheism is purely “a-theism”, and nothing more follows from it. However, it is for historical reasons that this term has become a label for a group of people whose worldviews may differ in many ways but agree in one very important respect: they are naturalistic, with a small n. That is to say, belief that there is nothing supernatural (rather than just no God) is not a boring, but an interesting view with repercussions. In a world that has been predominantly supernatural, it is necessary to argue for this naturalism and to show that it is compatible (but does not entail) with meaning, value, purpose etc. You might say it would be more accurate if these people did not group under the name “atheists” then, but rather called themselves “naturalists” as many atheists have proposed. True, but we’re not talking about the logically most appropriate label here: most people end up being labelled not entirely accurately for historically contingent reasons, or even mocking: think of Quakers or Methodists.
So I think if you are talking about atheism as an actual belief, you find that for contingent reasons, there is plenty positive to say about it, and that to argue Tim’s line you have to apply an inappropriately literal criterion for what a belief is, on the basis of its name.
There’s more to be said here, I accept, and I could be wrong. But where I think I was actually wrong was in the matter Tim quoted me favourably on. I said clearly that there is nothing about being an atheist which necessitates an optimistic world view. Nonetheless, I did spend most of that book trying to show how positive worldviews were possible for atheists, and so I think I gave the impression it is more inherently upbeat than it actually is. If I were to write the book again now, I think I’d be obliged to include a chapter on nihilistic or pessimistic atheism, to redress that imbalance. Perhaps that would cheer Tim up.

All Good Things

In the middle of a good natured and slightly lazy argument about the environment, I was going on, probably annoyingly, about the possibility of switching to a green energy provider, recycling, cutting out flying, individual duties to lobby one’s MP, and so on, more or less racking up a long list of obligations my friend was clearly failing to take seriously.  Soberly, he said this:  ‘I do recycle.  I do think about my carbon footprint.  I do take steps to minimize my impact on the world, but I can’t do it all.  I can’t save everybody in Africa.  I can’t change the law.  I can’t drop my job and go on climate marches and stay off of airplanes and ditch my car.  I can’t do it all, even if all of it is the right thing to do.’

It reminded me of a particularly good bit of Jonathan Glover’s book Causing Death and Saving Lives.  Glover quotes the following passage from The Brothers Karamazov:

‘And let me tell you this, too, Mother:  everyone of us is responsible for everyone else in every way, and I most of all.’  Mother could not help smiling at that.  She wept and smiled at the same time.  ‘How are you, ‘ she said, ‘most responsible for everyone?’…’Mother, my dearest heart’, he said (he had begun using such caressing, such unexpected words just then), ‘my dearest heart, my joy, you must realize that everyone is really responsible for everyone and everything.’

There’s something worth a tear or two in this, but also something unreasonable, maybe something absurd.  If someone spends her weekeneds helping out at a homeless shelter, should we take her to task for not doing something about disease in the developing world?  That can’t be right.

There is a difference between acts and omissions, even if you hold that taking an action is sometimes morally equivalent to failing to act.  Maybe the positive act of killing is in the same neighbourhood as standing by and letting someone die.  There are hard questions here, but look away from them for a moment.  A difference between acts and omissions is that I can do a finite number of the former while leaving an infinite number of the latter undone — no matter what I do.  I just can’t do all the good things, but I can do some of them.

So maybe I’m unmoved by my friend’s rejoinder.  I know he can’t do it all, but the suggestion was that he could do more than he’s doing.  You don’t get to ignore that suggestion by pointing to the impossibility of doing all the good things.

Some recent journalism

If journalism is the first draft of history, then maybe, at its best, journalistic comment can be the first draft of philosophy. If I add that usually blogging is more like the preparatory notes, I do so acknowledging that some blogs reach higher than much journalism: I am not so stupid as to think all traditional journalism is better than all blogs. However, it seems to me that blogging is generally pretty spontaneous and just isn’t very thought-through. Indeed, isn’t that usually the point? To share thoughts-in-progress, straight away, without sitting on them and honing them? I for one will happily admit I spend less time writing blog posts than I do equivalent-length print pieces.
I say this by way of introduction to a couple of bits of journalism you may or may not be interested in. One was a piece on the ethics of wifi piggybacking for the Guardian. The other was a mini-essay for Radio Four’s Broadcasting House. You can listen to it somewhere in the programme here, or read the script below.

“Time waits for no man,” so the saying goes. But it seems we are determined to turn this on its head, so that no man or woman waits for any time.
Who said patience is a virtue? Today’s society is all about immediacy: we want it all, and we want it now.
It started innocently enough, with instant whip, instamatic cameras and instant mashed potato. But now instant gratification has become a way of life: instant messaging beats slow conversation; instant opinion trumps considered comment, and “on demand” has replaced “by request”.
This isn’t just a luddite complaint by those unable to keep up with the latest fads. The problem with life in the fast lane is that there’s no scenery, just a blur.
For example, when I was a kid, visiting family in Italy meant a 24 hour boat and train trip. With no hurry, you took everything in: the spray of salty waves on the ferry deck; dawn by the Swiss lakes; the irritable French buffet trolley man who did not accept “the little money”. Take a plane and you may get there quicker but the whole experience becomes generic, interchangeable with any other flight. The inside of a cabin looks the same, whether you’re flying to Lisbon or Berlin; clouds are clouds the world over; and most of the time you’re at the airport anyway. You gain a few hours but you lose precious moments.
Wasting time is not a matter of spending longer than is strictly necessary to do something; it’s a question of failing to take the time to appreciate what’s around you. Doing something quicker rarely makes it better, unless what we’re doing is simply a means to an end. But this is exactly how the instant society treats everything. The greatest failure is to miss out, so you accumulate experiences like you’re ticking off a “to do” list. We’ve forgotten that if life is indeed a journey, it’s how you travel that counts. Living life in a hurry means we’re always going somewhere but never getting anywhere.
The new Eurostar service claims to square the circle, by offering the romance of train travel, but in record-breaking time. This is typical of the false promise of modern life, which pretends we can have it all when the truth is that everything must have a price. Life only has meaning because we have to make choices, and taking one option means leaving others unexplored. Yet in a consumer society this fact is repeatedly denied. We are told we can have everything, but tasting twenty bottles of wine is not the same as savouring all of them one by one – and there’s only so much you can drink every day.
We don’t need to turn the clock back or reject the benefits of modern life; we just need to slow down sometimes and remember that getting some of what we really want later is better than getting all the things that just happen to be available right now.

Happy Philosophy Day!

Today is the fifth annual Unesco World Philosophy Day. Should we celebrate? If so how? Suggestions and comments welcome. For background reading, you might try this piece I wrote for Comment is Free.

Killing Traditions


A student of mine once wrote a paper saying he couldn’t stop eating meat because it would mean giving up too many traditions. For example, on Thanksgiving Day you’re supposed to have the smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house all day. A vegetarian meal would simply cook too fast.

To a purist this is an atrocious argument. What, a turkey is supposed to be bred to ridiculous, uncomfortable proportions, housed in cramped conditions, and carelessly slaughtered, just so we can enjoy all-day cooking?

I see myself as pro-animal, but not as a purist. I do take it seriously that traditions would have to change if we were kinder to animals. It’s hard to completely embrace a vision of the future with no sheep dotting the hills in Wales, and no cattle milling around in west Texas. It’s hard for me to say the good people of Dallas should close down their barbecue restaurants and steak houses. I even have some sympathy for Eskimos who want to go on killing whales.

Last summer I had a chance to learn about the Eskimo whaling tradition in depth at the museum of art and history in Anchorage. Native peoples necessarily depended on animals for everything—food, fuel, clothes, even the walls of their houses. (It turns out Eskimos never lived in igloos year around—that’s a myth.) They were very clever about this, even making windows and waterproof parkas out of seal guts. Whales served the community’s needs, but also brought it together in an activity that had to be communal. (You can catch a hare on your own, but not a whale.)

For all that Eskimos vitally needed to hunt whales before first encounter with westerners and their resources, they weren’t as crudely exploitative as we are today. They didn’t think of the whale as a mere commodity. The Eskimos justified killing whales with the thought that they made a voluntary sacrifice—they gave themselves up for slaughter. No doubt wishful thinking, but at least this myth shows an awareness of a moral problem—how can I justify giving priority to my life over any other living creature’s life?

Eskimos want to keep killing the bowhead whale today. Now, I think that’s a bad idea, both because there are too few of them left (despite what native ecologists want to think) and because each whale is a truly glorious creature. But I take the loss of native traditions seriously. One wants to think there could be a way to hang on to something of it, if not the main thing. (Maybe establish a world-class Cetacean Research Institute in Barrow Alaska?)

Getting back to my student, and Thanksgiving—who says traditions have to stay exactly the same? Here it is, food that takes forever, and probably the only recipe you will ever see on this blog. To my fellow colonials—Happy Thanksgiving!

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(serves 10, takes all day, adapted from Fields of Greens, by Annie Somerville)

  1. Make mushroom stock. In large pot, use 9 cups of water to cover 1 chopped onion, one clean chopped leek, 4 cloves crushed garlic, 1 oz dried shitake mushrooms, 1/2 oz dried porcini, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp peppercorns, ½ lb sliced mushrooms, 2 small carrots, 6 parsley sprigs, 3 fresh thyme sprigs, 2 fresh marjoram or oregano sprigs, 2 fresh sage leaves, 2 bay leaves.Simmer an hour or two, strain, and simmer some more until you have 3 cups. Set aside.
  2. Make a pie dough with 1 ½ cups flour, 6 TB butter, ½ tsp. salt, a bit of cold water. Keep in refrigerator until needed.
  3. Using a big heavy pot, heat 2 TB olive oil and add 4 cups sliced mushrooms. Sear for 6-7 minutes over high heat, add 4 finely chopped garlic cloves and ½ cup sherry. Simmer until mushrooms are pretty dry. Put all that in a bowl.
  4. Chop firm vegetables of your choice, such as potatoes, celery root, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, carrots (best with all of the above). Use enough to nearly fill 2-quart oval earthenware casserole (or whatever you have).
  5. Heat more oil in the big pot and add a chopped onion over medium heat. Saute a little while, then add all the chopped vegetables. Cook and turn for about 20 minutes. Add 2 TB each of fresh marjoram, thyme, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.
  6. Make sauce out of stock. Heat 3 ½ TB butter in medium size saucepan and add 5 TB flour. Whisk until smooth. Gradually add stock, whisk, cook over low heat, turn off heat.
  7. Pour all the vegetables and mushrooms into the casserole dish. Add the sauce. Don’t fill the casserole to the top or it will boil over in the oven.
  8. Roll out the dough and cover the pie with it, crimping the edges. Roll out leftover dough and cut out turkey image. Affix to top of pie using whisked egg. Brush the rest of the pie with egg. Make slits in top of pie.
  9. Place on baking pan just in case of spills. Bake in 375 degree oven for 40 minutes. Take out and let cool 5 minutes.