Monthly Archives: January 2008

There’s some truth in that

thequeen150906_228×309.jpgBack in the dark ages I took a course on Aristotle with Martha Nussbaum, and a contrast she made stuck with me. There are philosophers who make their way by gathering ideas and finding some truth in them all. They’re the great respecters of the way things seem. That’s Aristotle. Then there are those who boldy put forth a new vision of things that may very well not match the way things seem. That’s Plato.

I believe at the time I was clapping for Plato. These days, especially as I work on a book about ethics and animals, I can’t get myself out of the Aristotelian mode. I’d like to be bold and controversial, but–I can’t help it!–there’s some truth in that..and that…and that.

It makes me feel better when I run into smart philosophers with a similar cast of mind–to wit, Kwame Anthony Appiah. I just read his book Experiments in Ethics, which I am reviewing for TPM. What with an excruciating limit of just 800 words, I didn’t get a chance to say something about Appiah’s pluralism. He is truly a genius at finding some truth practically anywhere.

In one chapter of the book he talks about Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionism, the view that people are endowed with a diverse set of moral instincts that will be played up more (or less) depending on the cultural niche their born into. Haidt is terribly non-judgmental about all these instincts. In western cultures our moral vocabulary emphasizes harm, care, fairness, and the like. But we are not to think less of cultures that emphasize hierarchy and purity. Despite my own pluralistic tendencies, I am inclined to think less of them. And why not? Hierarchical thinking underlies atrocious arrangements like the caste system in India (now outlawed, but still a pernicious force). Thinking in terms of purity helps people justify honor killings of wayward women.

Amazingly, Appiah manages to find “some truth in that.” Not that he defends those particular social practices, but he finds good reason not to eradicate concepts of hierarchy and purity from our moral thinking. The point that intrigues me most is about hierarchy. He argues that the perfectly pleasing concepts of respect and dignity actually have hierarchical origins. Their roots are in unequal relationships. The commoner respects the queen. (Finally you can see what that the picture has to do with this post.) Respect is all about looking up to someone. Dignity is is what the monarch has, as she holds herself upright and looks down on inferiors.

Most interesting sentence in the book: “Kant’s insistence that ‘you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only, his insistence upon the ‘unconditional and incomparable worth’ of all persons, recruits for all humanity the respect that a monarch might have considered his due.’ And, more plainly: “As topsy-turvy as it sounds, then, a great deal of egalitarian rhetoric speaks the language of hierarchy.”

Once pointed out, it seems entirely true. It also helps me understand a problem I’m having about ethics and animals. I’m inclined to think about what we owe to animals in terms of respect. But “respect” has always seemed a bit of a stretch. What Appiah says explains why. If respect is at root an attitude one has toward the monarch, it’s bound to seem not quite right to extend it to a cow or a mouse. If we clean up the concept, and get rid of those hierarchical connotations, what’s left?

Or, to put it another way (and leave the animal question out of it) … what do we really mean when we talk about respect for every human being, even the lowliest vagrant, the scrappiest child? The hard-headed Utilitarians have no use for the concept, but I find myself, in ethics, unable to throw out anything.

On a personal note…

I’ve decided to defer to my betters and lift the “personal note” from the comment section of “Greener than thou.”  You may have noticed that potentilla’s been absent for the last couple of weeks.  She’s been battling cancer for the last 10+ years, and has made that public on her website.  You can learn how she’s doing there.

About two months ago I asked her to write something for the blog about Jerry Fodor, who said something in the latest issue of TPM she took exception to.  She said she’d be honored to do so. Then she got sicker and couldn’t.  She did keep writing at her website, so I’m going to take the liberty of lifting something from there (about something actually more interesting than Jerry Fodor).  She was writing about how cold it was at her house on the west coast of Scotland (-4 C.) and was reminded of a trip she took to the Antarctic.

[It was] probably not much below zero, but there was a sharp wind blowing. We had been landed by Zodiac from our ice-breaker to visit the Adélie penguin colony and Borchgrevink’s expedition hut at Cape Adare. Cape Adare is the first bit of the continent you meet coming from New Zealand heading for the Ross Ice Shelf; it doesn’t have the tourist traffic of the Peninsula; we were probably the only humans for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles and the chances of anyone just dropping in were nil. It was overcast and gloomy, although not actually getting dark, since it doesn’t really in the Antarctic in January. The ship had various control mechanisms for counting passengers, including a system by which you turned a tag when you left the ship and back when you rejoined it. We had been treated to another lecture that morning about never ever turning someone else’s tag; on a previous voyage, a husband had helpfully turned his wife’s tag, assuming she had come back in the other Zodiac, and they had accidentally left the wife on shore, and taken about three hours to discover this fact and return, by which time she was….not very happy. Standing in the dim, watching the Zodiac have some difficulty in weaving through the ice which had come into the bay with the wind, feeling rather chilled after several hours on shore even wearing unfeasible amounts of clothing, I could almost imagine what it must have been like. (She couldn’t even have sheltered in the hut, since it would have been carefully locked up again by the Kiwi parks department people on board).

Feeling that the cold is waiting to get you is actually not right. It is more the realisation (emotional, as opposed to intellectual) that the cold – indeed, the world, apart from a few humans – is quite unaware of and indifferent to your existence.

“Apart from a few humans…” Maybe not so few.  And some of them are here at TP!

Greener than thou (with an update)

060923_entobviocar_widehlarge.jpgSpeaking of climate change (which James is, in his new book)…

My husband and I are thinking about buying a hybrid. Before you start thinking we’re really admirable people, I have to admit it’s a hybrid SUV. We have a gaggle of 10-year-olds to pile in the car (a gaggle is just a few less than a googol). Also, we live in the suburbs of Dallas. Our whole sense of the world has been irreversibly distorted. There’s nothing we can do about it.

But anyway. Just as we were about to do this holy/sinful thing, I read Steven Pinker’s terrific article about what makes us want to be good in the New York Times magazine. He says moralizing about car choices doesn’t proceed from reasonable considerations of fairness or harm, but comes from another place in the moral psyche. It comes from a sense of purity.

Purity-thinking takes many forms. If you’re an ethical vegetarian, you’re worried about harm to animals. But if you won’t drink soup with even a drop of beef broth in it, that’s a matter of purity. The SUV is just ike the drop of beef broth. Buying a hybrid is atoning for the drop. He says this not because he’s a climate-change-denier, but because he thinks personal car choices in the west are a minor part of the solution. From Pinker’s article:

And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness. Though voluntary conservation may be one wedge in an effective carbon-reduction pie, the other wedges will have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and atmosphere. Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

OK, he doesn’t really say I shouldn’t buy the hybrid. What he says is that it doesn’t matter that much. I shouldn’t feel too guilty that it’s an SUV or too smug that it’s a hybrid SUV. Most important, I should demand that my government address the problem of climate change. I’ll second the last point, but about personal choices…

The whole question whether we ought to eliminate purity and contamination from our moral perspective is an interesting one with lots of ramifications. Kwame Anthony Appiah makes an interesting point about it in his new book Experiments in Ethics. We each have a bigger-than-proportional concern about what we do, and do directly, with our own hands. That has to do with a sense of personal “cleanliness.” If we succeeded in getting rid of that, we might not like where we found ourselves. We might not take the trouble to vote, for example (mine, not Appiah’s)–since it’s almost impossible that my one vote can help or harm anything. What’s that saying–all politics is local? Maybe it’s true that all morality is local too–it starts with primitive feelings about myself and what I involve myself in, and expands (hopefully without limit) outward.

Update, January 27

Peter Singer responds to that passage in Pinker’s article today in the New York Times Magazine.

In his otherwise excellent article, Steven Pinker goes astray when he says that we should not “moralize” climate change because voluntary conservation is not enough. But we can grant the inadequacy of voluntary conservation while insisting on the importance of seeing the failure of the United States to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions in moral terms. We are not likely to get the other measures Pinker mentions — like a carbon tax — until American citizens realize that there is no defensible principle of fairness that entitles a nation with 5 percent of the world’s population to emit 25 percent of the greenhouse gases that are currently causing the problem of climate change. To protect the affluent lifestyle of its residents, the United States is harming the poor in other countries who depend on rainfall that will become more variable because of climate change or who are living on land that will be inundated by rising sea levels. If that isn’t morally wrong, I don’t know what is.


Although I do find his argument compelling, I find it interesting that he avails himself of a concept of fairness here, when in fact his own approach to ethics is strictly Utilitarian. Dare I say this is a little impure?

New Book: The Ethics of Climate Change

I am rubbish at self-promotion, but it seems part of the way things are done these days.  Blushing almost audibly, I am very happy to report that The Ethics of Climate Change is published this week.  You can find further details here:  Here’s part of the blurb from the publisher.

The book considers some climate science and a lot of moral philosophy.  It is written in the conviction that climate change is largely a moral problem — what we should do about it depends on what matters to us and what we think is right.  It is also a call for action, for doing something about the moral demands placed on both governments and individuals by the fact of climate change.  It’s about choices, responsibility, and where the moral weight falls on our warming world.

The Ethics of Climate Change is a model of philosophical reasoning about one of the greatest moral challenges any generation has ever faced.  If you don’t yet know why you should be morally outraged about the present situation, read this book.  Calmly, carefully, with well-marshalled facts and sound argument, Garvey shows us just how badly the nations of the industrialized world — and the citizens of those nations — are behaving.  He also tells us what we need to do about it.’

— Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University

‘Written in plain English, Garvey’s excellent book makes accessible to the reader the ethical issues surrounding global warming, and the literature too.  It should figure on all relevant reading lists.’

— Robin Attfield, Professor of Philosophy, Cardiff University

Is Cruise really so crazy?

If you didn’t manage to see the leaked video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology video before it was taken off YouTube, don’t worry: you know what to think about it already, don’t you? Scientology is barmy nonsense and Tom Cruise is its creepiest ambassador.
But hold on a moment. Just what is it that makes Scientology obvious nonsense and mainstream religions worthy of our respect, if not our devotion? If you watch the Cruise video (it is still here), you’ll struggle to find anything in it which doesn’t have its mirror image in Christianity.
First of all, there is the logic of inclusion and exclusion: you’re either totally committed to the cause or you’re beyond the pale. In this black and white world view, as Cruise put it, “You’re either on board, or you’re not on board,” “You’re either in or you’re out,” or, most colourfully, “Get those spectators either on the playing field or out of the arena.”
Typical of a cult, you might think, to force people to choose either complete devotion or apostasy. But wait a moment: aren’t those words familiar? “He who is not against us is for us,” said Jesus (Mark 9:40), and “He who is not with Me is against Me,” (Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23). Not much evidence of Scientology being particularly weird in that respect, then.
What about Scientology’s claims to be able to transform people’s lives? Cruise said “Being a scientologist you look at someone and you know absolutely that you can help them. Being a scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anyone else. As you drive past, you know you have to do something about it, because you know you’re the only one that can really help.”
Now that is surely a sect with delusions of grandeur? Well, yes, but how many churches do you pass which proudly state on their posters the alleged words of Jesus in John 14: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? Many Christians, if not most, take this to mean that salvation is only possible through Christ. So, as a Christian, you’re the only one who can really help people.
“Ok,” you might say, “but these Scientologists aren’t just making claims about ultimate salvation. They think they can transform people’s lives in practical ways, here and now.” Well, I’m sorry, but that is mainstream Christian thinking. How many times are we told how faith schools are better for children than secular alternatives? A standard Christian evangelical trope is to get someone to testify how Jesus has transformed their life. Many even go further: I’m currently in correspondence with a prominent Christian, who often speaks on television and radio, who believes that miracles are regular occurrences. He himself believes that God told his fellow church goers exactly how much to give him in order to help his family repair their car. Compared to that, Scientology’s claims that its drug and criminal rehabilitation programmes work sound rather sober.
Everything else Cruise says has its mainstream counterpart. It sounds weird to hear him talk about “SPs” – “suppressive persons”. But this is just in Scientology-speak for an idea you’ll find on every religion: the infidel, the apostate or the heretic who actively stands in the way of the preaching of the true word of God.
He makes grand claims for how Scientology “can bring peace and unite cultures.” But most Christians believe that the world will only be at peace when we all follow Jesus, while many Muslims believe that only under a caliphate can a society be truly just and happy.
Cruise also has an evangelical zeal: “Once you know these tools and you know that they work it’s not good enough that I’m just doing ok.” But spreading the good news has been mainstream Christian dogma for centuries. Don’t you remember singing “Go tell it on the mountain” at school?
Christianity seems less batty than Scientology mainly because we are used to it. To a Martian, the stories of Genesis and the blood sacrifice of a God born of a virgin would seem no more sensible than Scientology’s tales of an alien called Xenu who populated the earth 75 million years ago.
I’m not saying all religion is cranky, but it is the case that most religious beliefs simply do not stand the same standards as we do humanistic disciplines like science and history. This much should be agreed by both its supporters and its detractors. Once you accept that fundamental truth is made known to us, not by evidence, but by revelation, then your bedrock becomes just what the revelation you choose to embrace says. Because it is a revelation, it brokers no dissent and rests on no evidence. Because it’s absolute truth, anything which goes against it can be dismissed as not just false but wicked. With these two justificatory supports underpinning belief, you have certainty, totality, and sense of righteousness.
And you know what? As Cruise says, “It’s a blast, it really is fun, because, damn it, there’s nothing than going out and fighting a fight and suddenly you see, things are better.” Hallelujah, as people we are less inclined to dismiss as freaks might say.

Experimental philosophy

I’ve been having an awful lot of fun reading the book Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. If you’re interested in “experimental ethics,” there was a great article about moral instincts by Steven Pinker in the New York Times magazine recently. A few weeks earlier, Appiah had an article in the same place about “X-Phi”–short for “experimental philosophy. ” In some quarters philosophers are not just reading psychology but doing their own experiments. So much for the philosophical armchair! Naturally, the movement has a blog, which I’m adding to our blogroll.

Death is nothing to us

Epicurus writes:  ‘Thus that which is the most awful of evils, death, is nothing to us, since when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we do not exist.’

I’ve never been consoled, even fractionally, by that tidy bit of thinking.  It might even make things worse for me.  Epicurus says ‘when we exist there is no death’, and that makes me to think that death might not be here, but it is nevertheless looming, right out there on the horizon.  Not here, but near and getting nearer.  He says, ‘when there is death we do not exist’, and it’s the last bit that gets me:  ‘we do not exist’.  Rubbing my nose in mortality, the very thought of not existing, makes the whole fact of death just stand out even more.

I hunkered down over a drink with a friend recently and asked how best to cope with the fact of one’s own death.  Several strategies were dismissed out of hand.  Ignoring it is unsatisfactory if you are already thinking about it.  Telling yourself to enjoy the time you have seems misdirected, since I already planned to enjoy myself as much as possible anyway.  Urging one to somehow ‘face up’ to death, accept its inevitability, seemed to underline the problem, not serve as an answer.  You can try musing on the absurdity of existence, too, if you like, but that didn’t help us much either.

Thinking about it again, I wonder whether we were too quick to dismiss the thought that one ought to enjoy oneself now.  If you couple that with a little advice, maybe stuff something substantial into the notion of ‘enjoyment’, you can end up with the thought that living well will make a part of your death easier.  If you live now such that once you find yourself in the departure lounge you have few regrets, feel you’ve done what you wanted to do, then maybe that’s a consolation.

Thinking about it yet again, I’m still not swayed. 

Philosophy Begins in Wonder?

headache.jpgI’ve always liked the sound of Aristotle’s claim that philosophy begins in wonder, but what did he mean? There’s wonder as in looking up at a rainbow and finding it wonderful. That sort of open-ended aesthetic response doesn’t seem to get us headed in a philosophical direction. Then there’s wonder as in “I wonder what causes a rainbow?” Or “I wonder what’s for dinner?” Such questions don’t seem like the beginning of philosophy, not even the first.

Maybe philosophy really doesn’t begin in wonder, but in puzzlement. Of course, not the Sudoku puzzle type of puzzlement, but this kind of thing: something seems patently true, but hard to reconcile with something else that’s patently true. It’s obvious that we’re free, but I’ve also got to believe that we’re made of matter that obeys causal laws. It’s obvious that torture really is wrong, but also that wrongness is a weird thing to regard as real.  What should I say about freedom and morality to get myself out of these tangles?

Just as I was thinking I’d have to part company with Aristotle, I came upon a passage in a book by Garreth Mathews that sorts it all out. He says “[t]he wonder Aristotle has in mind is astonishment over basic puzzles or perpelexities (aporiai).” Much better! Now I can go back to liking the idea that philosophy begins in wonder.

Arguing with very clever people

Whose side are you on in this dialogue? And can you justify your allegiance?

JO: There’s no point in arguing with you, I’ll never win.

TOM: No, because I’m right!

JO: Not because of that, because you’re better at arguing than me.

TOM: Eh? You’re not stupid. If I’m wrong, you should be able to show that I’m wrong. If you can’t, then saying I’m better at arguing than you is just another of saying I’m right and you’re wrong!

JO: Not at all. Just because you can construct better arguments than me, that doesn’t mean you’re right. People can construct very good arguments for false positions.

TOM: Sure they do, but if we’re committed to rational debate, then you surely have to accept whatever the best argument leads you to. You wouldn’t say “There’s no point arguing with you, your evidence is better than mine”. If I have better evidence, you should agree with me; likewise if I have better arguments.

JO: It’s not quite the same. If the evidence supports one theory better than another, then we both have good reasons for accepting that. But the strength of arguments depends much more on the strength of the arguer. For example, I bet if you wanted to, you could beat me in almost any argument, even if you chose to defend a position you thought was false.

TOM: I’m not sure about that! But even if it’s true, you’ve got a problem. I assume you think that as a rational person, you should accept whatever position has the best arguments in favour of it?

JO: I guess so.

TOM: Well better arguments are bound to come from people who are better arguers! So you can’t just refuse to accept what I say on the basis that I’m better at arguing than you.

JO: I still think I’m on to something here, but, as usual, right now, you have the better argument.

TOM: Because I’m right!

JO: Because you’re the better arguer – it’s not the same.

TOM: Grr!

A Problem with Expertise

I’m doing a week of blogs on climate change for the New Statesman here.  As usual in this neighbourhood, the question of the scientific consensus concerning the reality of anthropogenic climate change has arisen.  This has always seemed to me a secondary question.  The existence of consensus takes a back seat, for me, to the question of the existence of anthropogenic climate change itself.  I found myself responding to a comment which pointed to sceptical voices by pointing to nonsceptical voices.  I also suggested that readers make up their own minds by boning up on the science themselves.  It seems to me, now, that I should have made that suggestion a little stronger.  The question of the existence of consensus fades a little when you’ve come to certain conclusions on your own. 

Certainly we’ve always had a division of epistemic labour, and usually we leave it to the experts.  But when does expertise rightly fade?  When should you roll up your sleeves and find out for yourself?  If you take the ‘should’ in that question seriously, you might end up thinking that you’ve got an obligation to do a little research when the conclusions of experts impinge upon happiness or suffering or some other morally relevant property.  Other motivations are possible too, but stick with the moral one now to narrow things down a bit.

There’s an annoying difficulty in here, noticed some time after Aristotle advised that we acquire virtue by emulating the virtuous person.  If we really have yet to acquire virtue, how do we spot the virtuous person?  So too, maybe, with other worries about following the advice of experts.  If I lack expertise and therefore must consult an expert, how do I know the person really is an expert?  How do I know that her advice carries some weight?  There’s the impossibility of acquiring expertise in all morally relevant matters on the one hand, and the impossibility of spotting expertise without some understanding on the other.  The untidy answer, maybe, is that we’ve got some research of our own to undertake, here and there, as and when we feel the nudge of moral relevance.