Monthly Archives: March 2008

Sound and laughter

This has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy, but since it is (nearly) always good to laugh, if you have sound and speakers on your system, then you really ought to listen to the recording attached to this page:

The Today Programme

It’s possible you have to be British to understand why this is so funny, but I doubt it.

I think I’m some kind of Imperialist

So I was sitting in the Golden Griddle on Carlton Street this morning tucking into pancakes and maple syrup (breakfast!), and I was thinking, you know, this is pretty good – everybody should be able to have pancakes in the morning. So then I started wondering whether this thought meant that I was, in fact, an imperialist.

You see, Makwan Moloudzadeh, can’t have pancakes in the morning because he’s dead. He was a gay Iranian, executed after a judicial process Amnesty International described as a “mockery of justice”. This is not a particularly unusual fate for gay people in Iran – you may well already have heard about this terrible case.

So I was pondering this stuff, and then the thought occurred – suppose I could press a button, and bring this kind of thing to an abrupt end. Everything else would be the same, except gay people wouldn’t be executed (they’d be fined instead, for example). Would I do it? Would I press the button? And more interestingly, would I press the button even if every Iranian actually thought that killing gay people was a good idea?

You know what, I’d do it. I wouldn’t hesitate. (Which I guess means that I’m probably not much in favour of democracy.)

So does that make me an imperialist of some kind? I’m thinking it probably does.

It is also possible to tweak this thought experiment in interesting ways. Suppose you could press a button to end the state murder of gay people in Iran, but the consequence would be a society a good deal less “happy” than previously (perhaps executing gay people had been a form of entertainment for the majority – there are, after all, precedents for this kind of thing). Would you do it? I think I might – which I guess means that I’m an imperialist not particularly impressed with utilitarianism.

Or supposing you could press the button, but you knew that there would be unintended consequences, and there was a certain percent chance that the whole society would go to hell? Would you do it? I certainly don’t think it is a no-brainer. (This was always my position on Afghanistan. I remember watching some film in the late-1990s. The Taliban were executing women in football stadia for… well nothing really. My reaction was – we must invade now. This cannot be tolerated. To hell with international law. To hell with utilitarianism. There are just some things that are too depraved to be allowed to continue.)

Okay. So let’s get some things straight:

1. Yes, I’m aware that it is possible to be against imperialism for pragmatic, contingent reasons. But some people are against imperialism for in principle reasons. That’s part of the point here.

2. Yes, I know that there are no buttons to end the execution of gay people. No need to point that out! I’m also aware that pressing a button *in reality* would lead to unintended consequences. But not in this thought experiment (except where specified).

3. Yes, I’m aware that social and political reality is messy, but there are interesting issues to do with broad principles. I have met lots of people who would think as a matter of principle that one should never interfere in the affairs of other nations.

4. Yes, I’m aware of all other objections you might have about the form of this thought experiment (okay, I don’t expect you to buy this, but I thought I’d stick it in, just in case).

So would you press the button? Given the thought experiment as described. If so, in my book you’re an imperialist fiend!

Cows for the Poor

rwanda_cow1.JPGI love a serendipitous vacation—the type where you wander around without high expectations, and something interesting happens.

So there we were in the middle of rural Arkansas last weekend when we discovered the educational ranch of “Heifer International”—an organization that tries to solve problems of poverty around the world with gifts of livestock.

On a hayride through the ranch we got to see living examples of the animals they supply to the poor, and in another section, models of housing from different parts of the world. The gift shop had a book corner filled with many of my favorite books on poverty, food, the environment, and “the good life.”

Throughout the visit, I kept thinking “Peter Singer”—since the zeal to relieve extreme poverty in this place was so palpable, and so reminiscent of his famous article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” as well as his more recent writings on poverty.

But then, I also kept thinking “Peter Singer”—the author of Animal Liberation. Animals are not just our slaves and resources. They are entitled to consideration too. Yet, Heifer International is very convincing—animals offer sustainable solutions to the serious problems of the poor. They provide muscle for plowing fields, manure for fertilizer, milk, money, motivation, materials, and oh yeah, meat. (I learned the seven “Ms” on the hayride.)

Singer’s approach to animal issues appeals to me more than the absolutist “rights” approach, which says No to using animals as a means under any circumstances, and for any purpose. It would be extremely hard for me to feel any moral reservations about the vignettes that fill Heifer International’s magazine, World Ark. Here’s a woman who lost her family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She and her son both have AIDS. The organization supplied her with a heifer—a pregnant cow. Now she has manure and muscle to maintain a plot of land, money to buy drugs, and milk to feed herself and her child. Part of the contract says she must pass on the gift–the calf–to someone else in need.

And yet. As the developing world catches up to the rich world, there will be more and more animals, and eventually they will be packed into factory farms, as they are here, and grain will be diverted from people to animals, and the impact on global warming will increase (livestock production already accounts for 20% of greenhouse gases). These are not just fears, but projections.

Would I want the Rwandan woman to suffer in the short term, because of the problems we all face in the longer term? Of course not. But it does seem to me that poverty-relief organizations have to look at the total picture.

On the whole, we couldn’t help but feel impressed—even my daughter, who was in the middle of reading a book by PETA president Ingrid Newkirk. (She did say, though–shouldn’t they focus on the animals too?) Before leaving we bought an armload full of books at the gift shop and made an extra $25 donation.

Back at home, I had a look at the organization’s website, which announced that Bill Gates had just recently made a $42.8 million donation. Sounds like he doesn’t share any of my misgivings.

All rational means

Philosophers and others talk about various means to some end or other, and when they want to pick out a certain subset of those means, they sometimes use the word ‘rational’.  We should take all rational steps to help the poor.  We should use all rational means to get at the truth.  We should choose what seems the rational course of action.  I wonder what we rule out, when we rule out irrational means.  I also wonder if we can do it without vicious circularity.

The first thing which springs to mind has to do with means which are irrational because they’re unjustified or not shored up by evidence.  It also occurs to me to think about inconsistent means, means which thwart me in some backhanded way.  Maybe also we hope to rule out means which aren’t as effective as others.  Rationality seems bound up with evidence, consistency and effectiveness — no doubt more besides, but that’s enough for now.

Suppose someone objects to all of this.  I’m having a little trouble answering a certain sort of objection without falling into circularity — although I’m not sure the circularity bothers me.  What’s got me going is this story, about a girl who died needlessly because her partents insisted on praying for her rather than seeking medical attention.  Suppose X argues that praying is not a rational means to health.  X says that prayer is not backed up by evidence, it stops one from trying other avenues which might work, and it’s not effective.

Someone who thinks prayer is rational might argue that it is backed up by some sort of evidence (which won’t count to X), that it is consistent with all sorts of things (which are irrelevant to X), and that it is effective (in a way which doesn’t matter to X).  The trouble shows up when you try to rule out these sorts of things without recourse (eventually or immediately) to what we started with, namely rationality.  When X replies, rationality is going to figure in sooner or later.  Does that matter?

Some platitudes about free speech

I was muttering on about free speech on BBC Bristol’s Thought for The Day this morning and, as usual, I found myself wanting to push the question a bit further.
This it the key bit of what I said:

Here in Britain, the big debate about free speech is not whether we should keep it, but how we should use it.
Some, pointing to examples like China, argue that having won freedom from state censorship, the worst thing we could now do is self-sensor. Free speech thrives when people say what they think, whether others find it offensive or not. If we keep quiet for fear of hurting people’s feelings, we surrender a freedom that others still die for.
Others counter that the right to say what we think is not the same as having an obligation to do so. We should, for example, refrain from insulting the prophet or mocking Christ, out of consideration for others and social harmony.
This debate reminds me of a study reported the other week which showed that families that argued were better for kids than those where everyone kept their thoughts to themselves. It’s not that verbal fighting is good, it’s just bottling it all up is even worse.
In the same way, although there’s no virtue in gratuitously insulting our neighbours, the worst thing we could do is get too worried that people won’t like what we have to say. Free speech does not oblige you to offend, but it does require us all to take the risk of causing offence and being offended.

Now I know that veers towards the platitudinous (or even just crashed head first into it) but I’m not at all convinced we can say much in principle which is more specific than this. It seems to me that in different cases you get different answers to the question of “Is this too offensive to say?” It depends whether what is said is worth saying more than the offence is worth avoiding – which is another pretty useless rule to hold in abstract terms, because it just postpones all the hard questions.
This interests me because when there are debates about whether people should have said things people found really offensive, people often invoke some general principle to defend their position. But the general principles seem to me either too simplistic (always shut up; always speak out) or so general that anyone can agree with them. I want to say (philosophically) “it depends” but (unphilosophically) “I can’t give you a general rule to tell you what it depends on”.
Am I right, or has anyone got a good principle or two which is meatier than the sort of vague stuff I’ve offered above?

Virginia Woolf and Jean-Paul Sartre

This is just a frivolous thing really. But there is a striking similarity between something that Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel The Waves and a very famous passage in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. So basically I’m wondering whether Sartre ripped off Virginia Woolf. (I’m sure I read somewhere that he taught modern literature sometime during the 1930s, but anyway, he must have been aware of Woolf’s writings). Here’s Sartre’s passage:

Pierre is not here. This does not mean that I discover his absence in some precise spot in the establishment. In fact Pierre is absent from the whole cafe; his absence fixes the cafe in its evanescence; the cafe remains ground; it persists in offering itself as an undifferentiated totality to my only marginal attention; it slips into the background; it pursues its nihilation. Only it makes itself ground for a determined figure; it carries the figure everywhere in front of it, presents the figure everywhere to me. This figure which slips constantly between my look and the solid, real objects of the cafe is precisely a perpetual disappearance; it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the cafe. (Being and Nothingness, p. 10)

Here’s Virginia Woolf’s:

‘It is now five minutes to eight,’ said Neville. ‘I have come early. I have taken my place at the table ten minutes before the time in order to taste every moment of anticipation; to see the door open and to say, “Is it Percival? No; it is not Percival.” There is a morbid pleasure in saying: “No, it is not Percival.” I have seen the door open and shut twenty times already; each time the suspense sharpens. This is the place to which he is coming. This is the table at which he will sit. Here, incredible as it seems, will be his actual body. This table, these chairs, this metal vase with its three red flowers are about to undergo an extraordinary transformation. Already the room, with its swing-doors, its tables heaped with fruit, with cold joints, wears the wavering, unreal appearance of a place where one waits expecting something to happen. Things quiver as if not yet in being…And every moment he seems to pump into this room this prickly light, this intensity of being, so that things have lost their normal uses—this knife-blade is only a flash of light, not a thing to cut with. The normal is abolished. (The Waves)

Okay, so Sartre’s writing style is an abomination, and there seems to be a whole Gestalt psychology thing going on with him which is absent from Woolf’s passage. But even so – it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Pretty much?

If so, I think it’s interesting, because that Sartre passage really is very famous.

Too young to die

I did a “Thought for the Day” on Radio Bristol this morning. It’s no criticism of the slot to say that it is very limited: the most you can do is plant a seed of thought. But I wondered if we could at least germinate it here. This is what I said:

The film director Anthony Minghella died yesterday, aged 54. Too young, you might think. But what is to young?
For most of human history, life expectancy has been between 20 and 35 years. Only well into the twentieth century did most people in the world start living longer than Minghella did. People in sub-Saharan Africa still live on average just 46 years.
So in terms of quantity, Minghella has had more life than most humans who have ever lived.
In terms of quality, he was even more fortunate. A rich, white western man enjoys a standard of living far above that of the vast majority of humanity, past and present. In Minghella’s case, he also had an extraordinarily rich life in another sense, winning an Oscar for The English Patient in 1997.
By any objective measure, then, Minghella had a longer and better life than any human could reasonably hope for.
And yet, the sense persists: he died too young.
Perhaps this is just a mistake. We all have to die eventually, and if someone has had a good life, why worry about whether it could have been longer? Surely the goal of life is not to notch up a cricket score of years, and the best thing imaginable is to hit a century?
There’s some truth in this. But there is also a legitimate sense in which we appreciate that every life that ends earlier than it could have done is a lost opportunity for something good and irreplaceable.
So we balance conflicting thoughts: we mourn the loss of what could have been, yet we celebrate all that Minghella’s life actually was, knowing that most would be lucky to have lived so well.

I know this is an issue all-too current for some regulars here. I can’t help wonder how these possibly glib thoughts really pan out in real life. The sense of loss comes all by itself, but it seems people differ as to how much they can make the thought of celebrating the life have real purchase. For many, their grief is just too strong. However, I have encountered examples of people who, even as soon as the funeral, can genuinely “celebrate” as well as mourn the life that has passed.
How do they do it? Is it just a matter of temperament? I’m not so sure. I suspect that one’s intellectual commitments can make a difference here, as long as they are deeply rooted. For example, our former cartoonist Shaun Williams approached his death (from leukaemia) with Humean good cheer, at least in part because of his Buddhist beliefs.
There is a tendency to assume that emotions and rational beliefs have nothing to do with each other. I think this is far too simplistic, but I’d like to know from people’s personal experience how much their rational beliefs really can change the way they feel about major life events.
I should say, by the way, that I do not regard someone who just collapses in grief when they lose a loved on as having failed philosophically. It seems to be that using to intellect to anaesthetise oneself emotionally is not desirable at all, and sometimes a loss is just too great to be mitigated by reason, at least initially.

The Case of the Inquiring Murderer

Just a follow up to yesterday’s post (“Life Sucks”). Some of the good people at Butterflies and Wheels seem to disagree vehemently, and I’m not sure what the disagreement is really about. What I said had an ethical component and a factual component.

The ethical component is pretty uncontroversial. I said if you can foresee that publishing a cartoon will lead to violence and death, you have to take that into account. Although it won’t be you that directly does the killing, you bear some indirect responsibility. Perhaps the costs will be outweighed by other benefits, but the costs can’t possibly be ignored.

To disagree with this, you really have to say some odd things about the sanctity of speech, or some such. Or maybe take a Kantian line on truth telling. Kant was an absolutist about lying–you shouldn’t do it, ever, even in his famous case of the inquiring murder. The bad guy comes to your door and asks about the whereabouts of his wife, who he plans to kill. You should tell the truth. The guy goes and kills his wife. Is that your fault? No, says Kant. The bad guy killed his wife, not you.

It’s a different situation, but I suppose someone might think that as long as the cartoonists are telling the truth, it doesn’t matter how many people get killed in foreseeable riots. It could be 10, 100, 1000, even a million. They’d still be completely innocent, and only the killers would be guilty. This is not very plausible.

On to the factual component. It seems possible (that’s as far as I’ll go) that the Danish cartoonists could have foreseen the violence that resulted (Christians killed in several countries) especially because of the earlier Rushdie affair. If “The Life of Brian, Muslim style” is in the works today (as Ibn Warraq says in his Point of Inquiry podcast), then you really have clearcut foreseeability.

Supposing the violent outcome of the cartoons was foreseeable, that’s not the end of the story. In Nazi Germany, it could very well have been worth the risk to print a nasty caricature of Hitler to turn around a population that was too enamored of him. But from what I can tell, the west is not enamored of Mohammad. The cartoon that depicts Mohammad with a bomb turban delivers the news that Muslim countries are violent. Whether that’s true or not, it’s old news. It’s just the establishment position, the conventional wisdom. Sure, people in Muslim countries don’t believe it, but the last thing that’s going to persuade them is a deliberately provocative cartoon offensive coming out of Europe.

The ethical point that we’re accountable for our impact is, well, “to die for”. The facts? Well, facts are always very messy. No doubt there are many other relevant points to be made.

Life Sucks

About the title. I was listening to a speech by Salman Rushdie (courtesy of Point of Inquiry) recently, and I learned something amazing–he says that “sucks” is American slang. I had no idea.

Anyhow, why does life suck? In a word, because of bycatch. Here’s what I learned from a student in the animal rights class I’m teaching. For every pound of shrimp that’s hauled in by nets, another 15 pounds of fish are destroyed. So say you’re OK with eating shrimp, but not with eating fish. Too bad, you can’t kill one without the other.

Life sucks because things we do have these hidden ethical costs. There’s a lot of bycatch, and you have to look into things to get the full picture of how your actions affect the world.

That Salman Rushdie podcast brings up another interesting example. He was talking about “the topic,” as he calls it. That is, the topic of free speech and whether it’s a bad idea to write things that enrage Muslims and lead to violence. Of course, Rushdie knows a lot about that. He was defending himself, but also other people who dare to write things that enrage Muslims, like the famous Danish cartoonists. Possible danger to writers can’t be allowed to silence people, he argued.

But there’s a problem that really needs to be considered here–more bycatch. It’s obvious the writers put themselves at risk. But sadly, they also put others at risk too. I read a surprising fact in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. Eliza Griswold writes that more people died in Nigeria (of all places) than anywhere else, following the 2005 publication of the cartoons.

I’m not trying to say, necessarily, don’t eat shrimp, and don’t publish provocative cartoons. My point is just that there’s no way you can ignore the bycatch. You have to figure out how things work, look at the past (we’re in a post-Rushdie world now…we know that making fun of Islam has deadly consequences), assess the probabililties, look at all the hidden costs.

I suspect there are cases where a particular exercise of free speech is worth people dying over. I admire the bookstores that carried The Satanic Verses and I do have it on my shelf. The cartoons seem an awful lot more like trivial exercises of the right to free speech. And then there’s this example. In another Point of Inquiry podcast I listened to recently, Ibn Warraq says someone in the Danish Parliament is working on a “Life of Brian” for Islam. Worth a couple of lives? I don’t quite see it.

There are some splendidly subtle concepts you could use to worm your way out of responsibility for bycatch–intended vs. foreseen, collateral damage. You don’t have to be a fully paid up Utilitarian to see that this stuff just won’t do. If your action leads predictably to a certain result, you’re accountable. It’s not precisely as if you did that thing, but the weight of it is on your shoulders.

“Fully paid up”–British slang. I hope I used it correctly.


Goodbye to our friend Christian Jago (Potentilla) and condolences to her husband Colin. She had been fighting metastatic cancer for over 10 years and died this morning.

I just had a “search” through her comments (one year’s worth!) and it was good to hear her voice again. I know some of you out there will feel the same way.

I rather wish we could banish the words “atheist” and “agnostic” because they set up a binary opposition which is unnecessarily constricting. I am a sort of “almost certainly not” atheist, but not anti-religion (although of course anti some of the things associated with particular religions). Also, only about “probably not” if we are talking deism rather than theism.

I absolutely do not believe that people, on average, are any more or any less caring now than they ever have been, whether through nature or nurture. The further you go back in history, the fewer people you would find who would care about bad things happening to people far away, or even thinking they were particularly bad. The thesis that children are more callous because they are raised to be so because ‘the powers that be’ have an interest in them consuming, is, sorry, but nonsense on stilts.

Being seriously ill does not let one off the moral obligation to (try to) behave like a reasonable human being. In other words, it may be the cause of one behaving like a bastard, but it’s not an excuse for doing so. In particular, one has no right to rely on the goodwill of others if one is not making an effort to behave as well as possible in return.

In reply to “Sean”–

Ogtinis to rhyme with martinis (well, sort of rhyme). A very useful word. In exchange, I offer you wentletrap, which is the proper word for an idea which sets you off on internet research when you should really be doing something different, leaving you an hour or two later with a lot of fascinating and semi-relevant data but not having started the something diferent.

From a debate with Steve Fuller:

I have absolutely no interest in the silly little concerns of one-upmanship which indeed characterise much internet debate; possibly because I have incurable cancer, as you may have discovered from our website. I am – really – just interested in learning more about the truth.

And finally, her very first comment on March 6 (ha!) :

Prince Charles just isn’t very bright. This isn’t to excuse him for not doing his homework. Just to say that even if he did, he would probably only manage a C-.

Christian was smart, funny, courageous…and just very cool. I sure will miss her.