Monthly Archives: February 2008

Clive Wearing and Personal Identity

If you have any interest in personal identity – and even if you don’t – you need to watch these (if you haven’t already seen them, obviously!)

And then:

You won’t regret it! Well you might, but hey…

Disagreeing Respectfully

After getting involved in a discussion about religion and respect at Butterflies and Wheels, I’m still thinking about what respect is and why it matters. What triggered the debate was a comment by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon chastising those infamous Danish cartoonists. “We should respect all religious beliefs,” he said through a spokesperson. Whether or not the rebuke in this particular situation was reasonable, what about this demand for respect?

Taken at face value, it’s got to be overstated. Basically respect is esteem—it’s having a set of positive thoughts about someone or something. It can’t be obligatory to have esteem for every religious belief, or every belief period. If you consider a belief false, you hold it in low esteem (unless it’s part of a novel or a joke…). That’s surely just fine. I can’t be obligated to hold every religious belief true, and can see no reason why I should withhold judgment either.

And then what if you want to persuade others of the falsity of some religious belief? That’s a perfectly worthy enterprise. And then mounting arguments, adducing evidence, getting people to question what was formerly unquestionable—all these tools of persuasion can take writing that has some oomph. A persuasive book will inevitably offend someone.

And so “respect, pshaw”? But there’s something to this urging of respect. Too much loss of esteem means alienation. For western liberal critics of religion, criticism is not a prelude to acts of violence, because they’re steeped in ideas about pluralism and rights. Still, I worry about what we do to our own psyches when we allow ourselves to feel at odds with a lot of the world. This is a feeling that personally I’d rather not have.

Other writers of polemic, and their readers, are not so tightly reined in by liberal political notions. Their alienation from the people they criticize can spill out into the real world in the way they treat neighbors, customers, job applicants, political candidates, etc. There are real world consequences to seeing other people as very, very “other.” Presumably that’s what’s behind the Secretary General’s remark.

So how do you do it? How do you maintain respect while disagreeing? Is it just a matter of speaking civilly? Or do you have to find some merit in the other person’s views? Or do you have to remind yourself of your opponent’s humanity—break bread together, so to speak? Or do you have to be able to occupy the other side’s perspective, however fleetingly?

Maybe all of the above. To tell you the truth, I have a lot more trouble with respect the more the question is this-worldly, not about holy things (or nothings, as the case may be). Respect for members of that other political party (interpret that however you like)—now there’s a challenge. It does seem like respect is always the right thing to strive for.


Oh, and by the way, for some of you who chastised me for the phrase “hard road to hoe” last week, I thought you might enjoy this 1840 cartoon. If it’s supposed to be “row to hoe,” people have been mangling the phrase for a long time. So there. Show a little respect. Oh, and please don’t ask about the word “pshaw.” I have no idea what it means.



Not Being There

Philosophers can go on a bit about what something is not, and one was doing that in front of me at a recent lecture. He was telling me about what something was by explaining that it wasn’t something else, presumably a something else I might have thought that it was. I missed the rest of the lecture, falling into a muddle about privative character.

Privations or privative properties first show up, for me anyway, in reflection on God and the problem of evil. The thought, no doubt owed to the schoolmen, is that evil is not a thing which exists: it’s a lack of good, a privation of good. God is not responsible for evil, because he created only good stuff. Some of the good stuff maybe degenerates a bit, loses some of its goodness, falls short of what it might have been, and that lack is evil. Anyway, God didn’t create evil. It doesn’t exist the way created things exist — evil is more like a doughnut hole than a doughnut. Evil can’t be God’s fault.

I never bought that move, because it just smelled like another epicycle to me, an ad hoc line only taken up to save God. Following an evening of hearing a philosopher tell me what something isn’t (and all that making perfect sense), I’m worried about the real nature of privative character. Some of it counts, and some of it doesn’t.

Some of it doesn’t count: more or less anything you care to mention has an infinite number of privative properties. This shoe of mine has the property of not being inclined to scepticism. It is also not prepared for a fall in interest rates. Further, it is not a McNugget.

Some of it does count. You can explain an aspect of philosophy to someone by telling her that philosophy not in the fact-finding business. You can find a wrench in an engine and say, darkly, ‘This is no accident’. (Not sure where I got that one.) You can join Sartre in thinking that Pierre’s not being in the cafe stands out somehow.

Some privative character is really there, as it were, and some of it isn’t. What drives the distinction between privations that count and privations that don’t?

Cattle Here and There

I’ve got a webpage for the animal rights course I’m teaching this semeter, with a corner for news stories. How’s this for an interesting juxtaposition? A student sent me a story about a camp in southern Sudan, where young boys spend time herding cattle. Watch the video (click on the picture) and you get the impression of a relationship between people and animals that’s mutualistic and respectful.


Another student sent me a major news story about the recall of 143 million pounds of beef in the US, spurred by an undercover video taken by the Humane Society. Watch this video (click on the picture) and you’ll see “downer” cattle–that’s the technical term for animals so sick they can’t stand up–being prodded and abused. The story attracted extra attention because the meat was being sold in school lunches.


I find the second scenario revolting. It’s because of this sort of gruesome animal abuse that I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years. But the first scenario stops me from being a true blue animal rights advocate. I find it extremely hard to believe that what’s going on at the cattle camp is morally wrong. On the abolitionist end of the animal rights spectrum (occupied by folks like Tom Regan and Gary Francione), they say that it is.

Maybe a factor is that I know scenes like the one in Sudan have been part of human existence everywhere for thousands of years. Finding such a huge swath of life unethical is a tall order for me. But more seriously, there’s a survival factor in the Sudanese scene.

What difference does that make? That’s a tricky matter. I take it I can’t kill my neighbor to survive, so why can I kill cattle? The abolitionist crowd says I can’t, no matter what, even if my life depends on it…which is certainly a hard road to hoe.

If I could go along with Peter Singer’s Utilitarian approach to animals, it would be pretty straightforward. More total good comes from the Sudanese herding culture than would come from abandoning it—you get both happy cows and happier, healthier, more prosperous people. And you don’t, by the way, get the environmental damage that results from western farming. (What happens when western animal agriculture is imported to Africa? There’s a good article about that here.)

But I have problems with Utilitarianism. I can’t see how using people to maximize the total good can be morally right. Animals aren’t just like people, but they’re sufficiently like people that there’s also a problem with using them to maximize the total good.

It seems to take two ideas to defend the Sudanese, if you’re not going to buy into plain Utilitarian thinking. One, you’ve got to think using living things isn’t the only terrible thing you can do; it’s also terrible to neglect the survival of your family, friends, and self. Then I think you’ve got to think it’s especially important whether human beings survive.

But wait, the people of southern Sudan wouldn’t immediately die if they gave up their herds. They aren’t literally in a life-or-death struggle, like an explorer starving in the Arctic. Still, keeping livestock really is a vital matter for people all over the developing world. It can make the difference between living in extreme poverty, always hovering close to death, and having at least a minimally decent standard of living.

Of course if you’re happy to enjoy a hamburger for the taste and without regard for the animal it’s made out of, you’ll think the morality of Sudanese cattle herders it patently obvious. But I’m not, and I do have regard for the animal. So for me it’s all very puzzling.

Bottom line: they exploit animals in the right way, for good reasons, so while exploiting isn’t lily white and perfect, it’s the best they can do. We exploit animals in the wrong way, for bad reasons, so we should stop.

Identity Two


I sure do miss reading Potentilla’s sharp and friendly comments, so was glad to read what’s on her mind at Auspicious Dragon yesterday, where her husband Colin posted this. He tells me he’ll read comments to her. Potentilla’s “Christian” in real life…funny, she once told me, because she’s not. — Jean Kazez

Christian may not be always able to remember why she started the sentence that she is currently in the middle of, but that doesn’t stop her being able to remember the title of philosophy essays in obscure journals when they help her make her point. In a way it makes sense – easier to get somebody to read something than to try and explain it.

Anyhow, Peter Strawson, ‘Freedom and resentment’ from the Procedings of the British Academy, 1962.

The essay isn’t primarily about the point she was trying to make, but it does contain a succinct description of her current state. That is, the state of not being considered to be a full human being.

In the hospice a patient would have to be much worse than just badly behaved to get any opprobrium. Probably to provoke the staff a patient would have to be doing something harmful to another patient. And maybe in extreme cases not even then. Your status as a responsible adult is held in suspense. It isn’t fully revoked but it isn’t in place either. The relationship between the carers, helpers and domestics and the patients is odd. Not odd as in being unexplicable, but odd as in being outside of the norm of everyday life.

Strawson talks about our reactive attitude to people that we see as being excused from normal civil behaviour because of some factor no fault of their own. He was thinking of the very young, or the mentally ill, but it can also apply to those in pain, or under the influence of necessary drugs.

The second and more important subgroup of cases allows that the circumstances were normal, but present the agent as psychologically abnormal – or as morally undeveloped. The agent was himself; but he is warped or deranged, neurotic or just a child. When we see someone in such a light as this, all our reactive attitudes tend to be profoundly modified.

(Note: if you read the essay, I realise that I may be conflating Strawson’s two subgroups. But the aim here isn’t to produce a critical essay of Strawson’s ideas).

So when Christian talks about not knowing who she is anymore, this is partly a result of what is going on in her head, and partly a result of the fact that everybody around her is treating her in a way she can understand is not normal. It is this loss of her complete identity that, possibly, distresses her most.

This is worth thinking about because this is a state that waits for many of us. And if you think not, then you haven’t looked inside an old people’s nursing home. Identity isn’t about the practicalities of numbers on a card, but about being treated like an adult by being expected to behave like one.

Strawson talks about our ability to suspend our normal reactive attitudes in exceptional cases and for short periods of time. We will allow people we know a certain scope or allowance for behaviour not normal nor mature. To receive permanent, or at least long term, dispensation, a person needs to be marked out in some way – be it illness, or learning disability, or youth – such that they are clearly outside of normal expectations. Being tied to an oxygen tank and a morphine pump is one such marking.

The question of ‘what is a person?’ and how we, collectively or individually, respond to the walking bundles of chemistry that make up the outward appearance of person-ness turns out to be a fascinating question.

A copy of the Strawson essay appears on the UCL website – but note the warning to refer to the original before relying on the web copy.

Sharia in the UK? Fine by me

Over here in the UK, there has been a tremendous fuss over the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that incorporating some elements of Sharia Law in UK law is now inevitable. Rowan Williams’s remarks were politically naïve: if he didn’t know how they’d be received, he was a fool; if he did, he was reckless. (People often say how intelligent Williams is, but I think they confuse intelligence with being thoughtful, well-intentioned and in possession of a fine beard.)
However, what annoyed me was that even the serious press failed to get behind his headline-grabbing phrase and unpick what he was really proposing, which was something much more modest. So when I was asked to record a “Thought for the Day” for the Scottish Humanists, I thought I’d break the habit of a lifetime and stick up for him.
So first, the red herring:

The question he was addressing was how to accommodate deep and real plurality in society without threatening its essential unity. The wrong answer to this is that there should be different laws for people who hold different beliefs. This is a clear non-starter. For one thing, who is to decide to whom such laws would apply? We can’t bind people by the religion, or lack of it, of their parents. So the only alternative would be for people to choose themselves which legal code to opt into. This is just absurd.

So what is a better answer?

As has become clearer in recent days, all Williams meant was that people should have the option of settling some civil disputes through voluntary means of arbitration, and agree to be bound by its conclusion.
There is, and should be, room outside the law for some diversity in how we choose to relate morally to one another. The key distinction here is between laws we all must obey, and practices that can be legally recognised but do not need to be followed by everyone.
A good example of this is gay marriage: the law could recognise this, but that wouldn’t, of course, mean there was one law for gays and another for heterosexuals; or that gay marriage was being forced upon the straight community.
Williams’s mistake was failing to make clear that the principle of one law for all is sacrosanct. Secularism requires a neutral public space in which people of all faiths and none can come together to debate and legislate as equals. As long as we maintain this, there is plenty of room in private and community life for people to live by their very different, deeply held beliefs.

So, putting aside the merits of what Williams actually said, are there any terminal problems for the sort of “space for legal recognition of belief-specific arbitration” pluralism I suggest? I think there are some real problems, which I’ll perhaps raise if no one else does, but in broad terms, I can’t see a principled objection to it.
(You can listen to the “Thought” here, or read the complete version at the bottom of this page.)

Racist Philosophers

‘I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.’

God help us, that’s Hume.  It’s the start of an unpleasant footnote in his On National Characters.  You can find an instructive discussion here, which has the room for a more serious consideration than I can offer.  I just want to raise the obvious question and drop a few alternative answers.  The question is, roughly, what do you do with passages like the one above?  How do you think through them, add them to what you already know about the work of the philosopher in question?  Do such lines matter?  Do they matter a lot?  It’s not just Hume, of course.  Under the rug is also swept some strong stuff from the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others.

Some responses just don’t work for me.  You can try to talk yourself into the thought that, say, Hume is just a product of his times, maybe forgive him by thinking that his words just reflect the common prejudices of his day.  Do we really expect our Greats to be so great that they manage to think themselves up and out of their social contexts?  Well, Hume wrote that when there something of a loud debate about the slave trade.  It’s not as though thoughts about equality were unavailable to him.

You can also try to bracket the unpleasantness and talk yourself into thinking that the odd racist puff has no bearing on the meat and bones of Hume’s philosophy.  But a lot of Hume’s philosophical writing just is about bringing the experimental method to the science of humanity, understanding the secret springs and principles underpinning human nature through observation.  Judging by the lines above, his observational capacities concerning human nature seem more than a little dubious.  The racist stuff seems to have a bearing.

So, what do you do?

A Shocking Experiment

milgram-shock-box.jpgHow about some more philosophy for kids (10 and up)? (For earlier posts in this sometimes series, see The Little Red Hen and Small Earth.)

Way back in the 20th century, a psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram did an amazing set of experiments. The point was to find out how people would react if asked to inflict suffering on an innocent person.

Milgram created an ingenious set-up involving a punisher, a scientist, and a student. (There’s great video footage here.) The punishers were 40 volunteers who had no idea what the experiment was really about. The scientist told the punisher he was supposed to deliver increasing electric shocks to the student every time the student gave the wrong answer to a test question. A label at the high end said “XXX warning, extremely dangerous!”

Now, pause for a second and guess how many people went along with the scientist and delivered the shocks…..

The answer is all 40.   Although they could see the student squirming, complaining (“let me out of here!”), screaming, and growing faint., 26 delivered the maximum voltage despite the warning label. (For a great article about the study, click here.)

I’m sure you’re thinking–the poor students! But never fear, they were really actors. The wires and switches were just fakes and the writhing and screaming wasn’t for real. What was real was the willingness of the volunteers to inflict pain on innocent people.

Milgram thought his experiment shed light on why some Germans went along with torturing and killing Jews and other minority members during the Holocaust; and why soldiers in war will sometimes do cruel things, like torturing enemy soldiers. There are all sorts of situations in which people will go along with unethical conduct rather than rebel against an authority figure.

So here’s my question: do you think you would have inflicted the shocks if you’d been one of the volunteers? If you’re the kind of person who would have (and remember, that’s two-thirds of people!), you might be on the road to doing something that really harms real people. What is there about you and your life right now that tells you that you woud have or wouldn’t have?

Say your answer is: honestly, I don’t know. Then what should you do to prepare so that if you ever find yourself in a real situation like this, with real people (or animals) potentially getting hurt, you’ll be bold enough to stand up to authority and do the right thing?

If you are a parent, not a kid–what are you doing to prepare your kids to challenge authority just when it’s morally important?

Denying the deniers

A couple of months ago I attended a Holocaust conference in Dallas and heard a survivor speak for the first time in my life. She dabbed her eyes as she spoke about scenes of unfathomable cruelty she had witnessed 65 years earlier. These were unspeakable things, but she spoke anyway. Nazi soldiers throwing babies out the third floor of an orphanage, while more below shot at them just for the fun of it. Babies thrown into bonfires in front of their mothers at the entrance to concentration camps. She and her husband have a new book out, called William and Rosalie.

I think I must have been thinking of Rosalie when I decided, late Saturday night, to call a halt to the debate about whether the Holocaust occurred. That debate was originally about whether Julian should debate Holocaust denier David Irving. Gradually it morphed into a debate between a number of TP regulars and several Holocaust deniers. Over 135 comments, there must have been 50 links to denier websites.

For the TP regulars it was an amazing education in the distortions and twisted rhetoric that keep the Holocaust-denier crowd in business. What concerned me was the education others might be getting. The thread was drawing quite a crowd. At the beginning of the thread, many good reasons were given for Julian not to debate a Holocaust denier. Those were the same reasons that made me think the ensuing debate really didn’t belong at TP. Such debates give the deniers credibility, they plant doubts, they turn the Holocaust into just a theory, they dishonor the six million, they dishonor Rosalie and her husband.

I suppose you could say a public debate with a well-known author is “different.” But I really think not. The internet is actually the primary avenue used by deniers to propagate their distortions. It matters what we do here. It certainly matters to me. I finally did figure out how to close comments without losing old comments, and we could do some radical pruning, but the consensus here at TP (and I’m glad we all agreed!)  is—that’s enough of that.

For fear that a thread on this post would attract the same characters, I’m afraid it’s going to be “comments closed”. Lucky you, there’s a great opportunity for debate just below. As a resident of Texas, the death penalty capital of the world, I’m finding it interesting!

Death Sentences

Probably I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I’ve thought about it. I haven’t thought about it much, but for me two objections show up very quickly in this connection. The first is that there’s something inconsistent in thinking that, say, ‘killing is wrong, so killers should be killed’. The second has to do with worries about the power of states over their own citizens. What bothers me, now, is that both lines of thinking seem to miss something at the heart of the matter. There should be a moral demand in there, maybe a moral prohibition, possibly having to do with the sanctity of life or something impressive along those lines. I’m a little worried that my thinking on something as important as this sort of death is shored up by just a worry about inconsistency and a jitter about the power of government. There has to be more to it.

I’ve only dipped my toe into the subject, but so far as I can tell, it’s a swamp. There’s lots of talk of human rights, but again I think I want something nearer moral bedrock to support arguments against the death penalty. Thinking about rights never seems to nudge me anywhere, even if I’m not willing to go as far as Bentham and throw the word ‘nonsense’ around. There are worries about mistakes, innocent people getting killed by a state. These thoughts bite a lot harder when they’re ramped up with worries about racism. I take the point well, I think, and I’m not dismissing it, but I still want something beefier. Any suggestions?