Monthly Archives: April 2008

Born in the USA

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s new book Experiments in Ethics is full of interesting tidbits, most of which I had to ignore in my review of the book in the next issue of TPM. In the last chapter, he speaks warmly of Aristotle’s account of the good life, affirming Aristotle’s point that whether you have eudaimonia (happiness, success in the deepest sense) is not entirely up to you. You need external goods like “good birth, satisfactory children, and personal beauty.”

You can quarrel with Aristotle about whether any externals really matter deeply (as Plato and the Stoics did). You can also quarrel with Aristotle about the specifics on his list. The member of that trio of externals that seems easiest to dismiss is “good birth.” Oh, come on. Aristotle lived in a place where some people were born slaves and could never extricate themselves from their misfortune, while people of noble birth had completely different prospects. But we believe in equality and upward mobility, and we’re surely completely beyond all that!

But Appiah is a master of charity. He has an amazing ability to find “some truth in that” (as we say). “No doubt you don’t believe that,” he teases. But then he says (to his American readers): “I wonder, though, if some native-born Americans wouldn’t think of their Americaness in the same sort of way: a good thing, not just instrumentally…but in itself.” Gulp. Maybe I do just a little bit see myself as having had the good fortune of a good birth, because I was born in the USA.

Feeling a little bit guilty about this moment of unearned pride, I was eager to ask my husband if he was proud to be born in the UK. In the hopes of cornering him into an admission of the same sort of vanity, I asked the question slowly and carefully, trying to forestall a politically correct knee jerk reaction. But I’d barely got through the question before he quickly said “of course” (and went back to his book). “What?” I said. (Had I heard him right?) “Yeah, of course, it’s a sense of superiority.”

We then speculated that we were not actually bad people, but that surely people feel the same way in France and Italy and China and Saudi Arabia and…well, is there any place where people really feel ill-born? Of course, there are places where living conditions are abysmal. But it’s possible there’s pride in birth despite that. You might be proudly Mexican-born, even as you try to get into the US to earn higher wages.

I suspect, though, that there are some differences in how lucky people feel and (in fact) how lucky they really are. The supremely optimistic view of the human condition is that none of the externals really has to matter–again, see Plato and the Stoics, not to mention gobs of self-help books. I think people are amazingly resilient and adaptible, so the world is not divided into happy “haves” and unhappy “have-nots” (the positive psychology literature attests to this). But I’m with Appiah and Aristotle (as I explain in my book about the good life). Externals do matter, some.

But getting back to birth. Who’s willing to admit to feeling either lucky or unlucky to be born in _____?

In Defence of Evil Pt. 2

I remembered that I had had an exchange with the philosopher Ted Honderich about this issue. I’m the interviewer, Ted’s the interviewee (he’s between the quote marks!).


There is an interesting issue here concerning those countries which measure up badly in terms of Honderich’s Principle of Humanity, which has to do with whether or not these countries have the right to defend themselves. For example, if it is the case that Israel, given its current political and social arrangements, is contributing to the existence of bad lives, might it nevertheless still be the case that it is justified in defending itself against terrorism, even if on a certain view it is the kind of terrorism that might lead to social change and thereby to a reduction in the number of bad lives? To put this more starkly, do countries that are thoroughly bad still have the right to defend themselves?

“This actually brings to mind the American response to 9/11,” Honderich answers. “In my book After the Terror, I make the point that you couldn’t really ask America to do nothing; that it is almost just a matter of human nature to defend oneself, and that this issued in Afghanistan. So, in one sense, the question of moral justification just doesn’t come up. I think I’d say something like that about the question you ask about bad societies or countries. I can see how human nature might force them to defend themselves.

“But supposing you were to give full details about whatever it is that makes a particular country bad, maybe for example it is a slave society, or a society based on the denigration of one particular racial group. If, as a result, the rest of the world decides to do something about this state of affairs, and you ask the question whether or not this bad country has the right to defend itself, well, I think you can answer the question by saying, ‘Well, who cares if they have the right, it would be better if they didn’t’.”

Nevertheless, it is possible that there is still an interesting moral question here. Even in the situation just described, it seems counter-intuitive to say that the bad country would be doing a moral wrong by defending itself. The particular significance of this line of thought is in relation to Palestinian terrorism and Israel. Even if one thinks that Palestinian terrorism is justified by the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel, then if indeed it is just a matter of human nature to defend oneself against attack, maybe an aggressive Israeli response to such terrorism morally justified, and if not, then at least understandable?

“I’m not going to grant you a large thing here,” Honderich replies. “If I do, I’ll end up defending rape, because of course rape is in line with human nature – well, it certainly isn’t against human nature. There can’t be a large argument from human nature to defence or attack in situations generally. The man who defends himself against the person who intervenes to try to stop him from violently raping a child, acts within his human nature in defending himself. But it certainly doesn’t justify him in defending himself in this way.”

Not even if his life is at stake?

“Well, that drifts over into the situation we were talking about earlier. It may well be that we all have a kind of invisible instinct of self-preservation, in which case the question of right or wrong doesn’t really arise. I don’t think that’s a complete answer, but I think that it is the beginning of a complete answer.”


Ted’s position seems to be that the line of argument I’m taking isn’t really about right and wrong. I’m not convinced. I think there is an interesting issue here about moral culpability. And I certainly don’t think he’s come up with anything like a complete answer.

In Defence of Evil

I’ve recently been spending rather too much time hanging out on Leftist web sites such as Socialist Unity (where incidentally its administrator made the somewhat unfraternal suggestion that I was “over-estimating my intellectual advantage” – as if!), so I got to thinking about the nature of evil. Specifically, the following question:

Do evil people – you know, socialists, members of the British Humanist Association, Greenpeace activists, and the like – behave immorally if they defend themselves against those who wish to terminate their evil by force?

Okay, I need to flesh that out a little. Imagine the following scenario:

The members of a radical animal rights organisation – “For The Love of Dog” – are holed up in a compound in Tunbridge Wells surrounded by armed police. The following things are true:

1. They have committed terrible crimes in the name of animal rights (murder, mayhem, and the like); in the world of this thought experiment, there is no doubt that they are evil;

2. There is no escape;

3. They will be executed if they are captured;

4. The dynamic of the organisation is such that there can be no negotiated surrender at this point (partly because of point 3) – there will be a firefight;

5. For any particular member of the organisation, there is a small percentage chance that they will avoid death or capture – and live to do evil another day – if they defend themselves; there is no chance if they do not (most likely they will die in the firefight).

The question then is: is it morally wrong for the members of the terrorist organisation to defend themselves?

Possible responses:

1. Yes – There is a moral obligation to let the rule of law take its course even if this means execution at the end.

Problem: Point 4 – There will be a firefight – no single individual can just surrender (so this is a game theory type problem here). Does simply allowing authorities to execute a person in the context of a firefight (see Point 5) equate to “allowing the rule of law to take its course”? Not obvious that this is the case.

2. Yes – There is a moral obligation to forego the chance of escape, and thereby condemn oneself to death (either during the course of the firefight or by execution).

Problem: Highly counterintuitive that this is an obligation. Yes, it might be the heroic course of action, but it is implausible to suppose that we are required to act heroically. It is also certainly arguable that we have the right to defend our own life against those who wish to end it (though obviously it’s hard to nail down exactly what this entails- and this is a slightly stronger claim than I’m interested in here).

3. No – In this situation, it is not wrong for any particular evil person to try to save their own life.


a) It might require us to argue both that it is right for the terrorist organisation to be attacked; and it is also legitimate for individual members to defend themselves against attack. At the very least, there’s a tension here.

b) The judgement seems to fly in the face of a certain kind of consequentialism; it might be that the people who do escape go on to commit further great evil.

c) It is counterintuitive to suppose that evil people might behave legitimately in resisting other people who wish to terminate their evil.

Why is all this relevant or interesting? Well maybe I’ll talk about that in a further post, but the thought here is that this kind of scenario can be developed so that it refers to the actions of nations.

So what do you think? Are evil people justified in defending themselves in this kind of scenario? I’m guessing most people will think that they are not.

Penis Theft

Perhaps you have heard of the recent spate of penis robbery and magical penis shrinkage currently terrorizing the Congo.  If not, this article will bring you up to speed. You will be relieved to learn that police have apprehended several criminals.

There’s an attempt at trying to understand what’s going on at the bottom of the article, and if you’ve done some sociology of science, you might be reminded of the strong programme.  Before the strong programme, everyone thought that sociology is required if we are to get to grips with false views of the world, but not true ones (i.e. our ones, scientific ones).  No so, say proponents of the strong programme, who argue that understanding even our ‘true’ scientific theories requires talk of self-interest, cultural context and social construction.  You can, at this point, go as relativist as you like.

I’m no expert in the hidden ways of penis sorcery, but I get the feeling that you’d have to say a lot about cultural context to understand what’s going on when complaints of penis theft are, well, raised.  You’d have to say more about that sort of thing, wouldn’t you, than if you were trying to explain why I’m sure that the heart pumps blood?

All Animals Are Equal

Just to round out the recent Peter Singer-fest here, I thought I’d get back to basics. One of Singer’s famous, controversial claims is that “all animals are equal” (that’s the title of the first chapter of Animal Liberation). If you take a close look, this idea is not silly, and not easy to refute. It’s a huge improvement on “speciesism”—the bias that makes animals not matter at all.

OK—so what does it mean? It doesn’t mean people and animals are just alike, or should be treated just alike, or anything of the sort. It means that we should attach important to the interests of individuals without regard to their species. The equally weighty interests of a dog and a human shouldn’t be thought to matter to different degrees just because one is a dog and the other a human being.

Singer’s view is not so very radical, and does not lead to hugely counterintuitive conclusions, because he thinks there are lots or differences between the interests of humans and the interests of other animals. So in practice, treating animals and humans as equals allows for a fair amount of different treatment. (This, by the way, makes the equality of all animals not as robust as the equality of blacks and whites, or men and women).

Humans typically have a very serious interest in going on living, he says, because they have lots of preferences and plans concerning their futures. Animals for the most part don’t. So if you’re the proverbial firefighter deciding whether to save the human or the dog, usually the answer is “the human.”

But now suppose you’ve got triage going outside the burning building. A human and a dog are lying there suffering exactly the same pain. Singer thinks this gives them exactly the same interest in getting medical attention. You’d go wrong if you thought the human’s pain mattered more than the dog’s. Of course, if the human is your own kid, you might rush to her first. But you are not to think that human pain really matters more, just because it’s human pain.

So much for explaining and making the case that this is not wild and crazy stuff. It’s not wild and crazy, but (I will confess) I’m also not persuaded. I’m skeptical of the idea that we can decide how much “atoms” matter before looking at wholes. If you put an atom of pain inside a whole that’s more creative, self-expressive, thoughtful, moral, etc., I suspect all that other stuff makes it matter more. It’s a little like a dent on a car. A specific dent matters to one degree or another depending on the worth of the car. Equal dents don’t deserve equal consideration, and I’d say equal pains don’t either.

This becomes more convincing as you focus incrementally on less and less sophisticated animals. When you get to the simplest and most primitive end of the spectrum, it really becomes hard to sustain the idea that equal pains matter exactly equally. For one thing, pains interfere with business as usual. The more primitive an animal’s business as usual, the smaller the cost.

Take a Painon, for example–a simple aquatic creature with a lot of headaches, and an interest in pain-relief. When fed pain-relievers, they drift around in a haze, until the headaches return. Am I really to think their pains matter no less than mine, or yours?

FYI–most people who attack Singer are eager to justify the status quo, eat a ham sandwich, and the like. My criticism is not in that spirit. Ham sandwich? No thanks. I’m just trying to get the underpinnings of animal activism right.


Trivia question: where does Singer’s chapter title “All Animals are Equal” come from?

Other good books by Singer for the unanointed: The Way We Eat (his most accessible), Practical Ethics (more philosophical), How Are We To Live? (enjoyable book about “the good life”)

Threshold Chickens

Following on from the punfest of a recent post, I’ll a little nervous about putting it this way, but I’m thinking a bit about vegetarianism, climate change, and the problem of causal impotence.  The trouble, very briefly, lies in two thoughts which seem pretty plausible.  (1) The rightness or wrongness of my actions has everything to do with the consequences of my actions.  (2) I’m more than a little insignificant, and the consequences of my actions are minimal at best.  Somewhere in those two sentences is a little disaster.

Suppose you’re Peter Singer, and you hand me a utilitarian argument for vegetarianism.  Everyone ought to go veggie, you say, because that will increase the happiness of everyone affected.  Certainly they’ll be a lot less animal suffering in the world, and maybe human health will improve too.  You draw up a long list of good consequences.  I can agree but venture, annoyingly, that although everyone ought to go veggie, it doesn’t matter if I have this chicken sandwich.  The loss of one meat-eater from a huge industry won’t matter a jot.  It won’t even matter to the chicken I’m eating, as it was doomed whether or not I chose to eat it.  What I do can’t make a causal difference, so it can’t make a moral difference either.

Singer, by the way, considers the objection near the end of this paper.  Maybe you can save the day with talk of threshold chickens.  You might list other practical, individual benefits of going veggie.  You might join Fred Feldman in thinking that a life history, not an individual act, is the morally relevant unit for evaluation.  Maybe you can drop or modify (1) with talk of the virtues associated with a veggie life or the consistent application of moral rules.  I want to get past the objection, but none of these moves seems to do it for me.  Any suggestions?

Starting the Week

It was a philosophical bonanza on this week’s edition of Start the Week on BBC Radio Four. Ray Tallis was talking about the head, Dan Dennett about religion, Gwen Griffith-Dickson about radicalisation and Carole Seymour-Jones about Sarte and de Beauvoir. Well worth a listen.
I found my personal reaction somewhat troubling. I’m well aware of the perils of confirmation bias: the psychological phenomenon whereby you pay more attention to evidence that supports your view than that which might challenge it. It seems that listening to this programme was a case in point. The two main “take home” messages for me were:

(1) Sarte and de Beauvoir once again demonstrate that philosophy does not make you a better person, even if your philosophical views on key subjects are actually right. (The charge sheet against them is extraordinary. Among other things, they drew vulnerable young students into sexual threesomes, invariably treating them badly and leaving them feeling terrible.) Being good seems to be much more to do with having a good sense of human nature (which of course Sartre thought didn’t exist), empathy, compassion and so forth.

(2) Religious doctrines have little to do with extremism and general nastiness. Dennett made the fair point that some religions are more vulnerable to abuse by extremists than others. I agree that it’s certainly no coincidence that there have been no Quaker suicide bombings. But in general, whether someone is a Muslim, Christian or atheist is not, over the long sweep of history, a very good predictor of whether or not that person will be murderous. Those that are often have little grasp of their religion’s teachings anyway, so whatever is to blame it’s not theology. So, fighting extremism by fighting religious metaphysics seems inefficient to say the least. It may not be totally useless, but it doesn’t attack what’s critical.

The discussion certainly did add grist to these two mills, but I wonder whether other people listening in would (a) be struck more forcibly by other points and (b) find reasons to reach different conclusions? If you can, have a listen anyway, and feel free to raise other topics I haven’t highlighted.

Sex with Animals

First question: why do we have to talk about it? The immediate reason is that someone sent me an article by Peter Singer—deftly named “Heavy Petting”—that defends sex with animals. Apart from being amusing and salacious, I think it raises some interesting questions.

Singer says the taboo against bestiality is rooted in our sense that a huge gulf separates humans from other animals. Speciesism is what sustains the mistreatment of animals, so it’s hardly benign. As attitudes change, he says, the taboo is bound to fade. In fact, even with the taboo, bestiality isn’t all that rare. A questionnaire from the 1950s showed that 8% of males and 3% of females had had a sexual experience with an animal at some point in their lives.

If you read the article, you’ll probably surmise that Singer is not so much promoting sex with animals as wondering about the roots of our horror. But why do we have to wonder? Can’t any emotional reaction just be allowed to prevail…even one this basic?

But wait…people used to have viscerally negative feelings about interracial marriage, and people still have viscerally negative feelings about gay marriage, and in 1001 ways, our visceral feelings can lead us astray.

Yes, but must we, can we, justify everything? A medical student slices bits off of corpses at the end of autopsy class to snack on. Can’t we just say “yuck” and move on?

Maybe. But just for fun, let’s see what happens if we turn the issue of bestiality over to “reason.” Is it really just speciesism that makes us frown on it?

I’d say not. You can have all the regard in the world for animals, but if you’re not attracted to your dog, then fooling around with her is using some part of the dog as a sex toy. Your dog’s not a toy, so that’s disrespectful to the dog. Thinking of animals as mere things we can use for our gratification is just as pernicious as drawing a sharp line between humans and animals.

There’s an issue of self-regard involved as well. You can have a compulsion to do something, yet find it revolting. I suspect that’s what’s going on with the person who has a session with his dog. It’s like the person who controls her weight by binging and purging—and finds that gross–or a waiter who compulsively eats people’s leftovers as he clears plates.

And please, don’t say we’re not entitled to find human-animal sex repulsive. If sexual attraction is “legit” and not in need of justification, then surely repulsion is above board as well. We are entitled to our sexual responses, both positive and negative.

Some people are repulsed by gay sex, and (drum roll) so what? People with that attitude shouldn’t have gay sex, should they be tempted (think prison setting). It’s the further conclusions they may wish to draw from their own repulsion that are problematic—that same-sex sex is bad for everybody. Not true.

I guess I also can’t really say bestiality is bad for everybody. I’m reminded of a scene in a Woody Allen movie with Gene Wilder and a sheep and a bottle of Woolite (not sure what the Woolite had to do with it). If there are people who really feel attracted to dogs and sheep and chickens (do read Singer’s article) , who don’t use them as sex toys or regard their dalliances with distaste, then….well, then I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. But no, I can’t really say what’s wrong with their proclivities.

But I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit: yuck.


Postscript.  A Google search reveals that Singer’s article created quite a brouhaha back when it was published in 2001. I guess I missed it. Most of the commentators don’t take Singer seriously, but one who does–and gives a nice overview of the fuss, and uses amusing phrases like “animal husbandry,” and tells an amazing anecdote about a guy in Maine–is William Saletan at Slate.

Ultimate Value

What’s really good, as in good just for itself and for no further reason? I would sign on for the idea that pleasure is really good, but I wouldn’t stop there. What else?

One of the more interesting of the new “positive psychologists” is the man with the must unspellable name, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. (I think that’s right.) He puts forward as really good, and not just good for something else, FLOW: the experience you have when you’re completely focused on an activity, so that an hour later you wonder where the time went. I’d even say that for MC, flow is the very essence of living your life well. The more flow the better.

Flow seems to happen when people are absorbed in tasks that especially interest them—for me, often while writing or reading. Generally, flow is associated with concentration on complex tasks. If you choose the right examples, you can get quite enamored of the concept. But then, I also experience flow while doing very mundane things. For example, if I have bought something that has to be put together in 200 steps, I can’t stop until I’m done, even if that’s two hours later.

The idea that flow is so valuable starts to seem dubious when you focus on the more plebeian examples. Furthermore, imagine really extended flow. Would you want a whole month to flow by, or a whole year? Life would go by way too quickly if we were too often in a state of flow.

You get another candidate for ultimate good if you change the “f” to “s”—SLOW. I’ve got a new book called In Praise of Slowness (Carl Honore) and I’m afraid some skepticism is already creeping in. There are chapters on slow food, slow work, slow children. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it, but I kind of doubt that slow is the new flow.

If there’s ultimate good, there’s also ultimate bad, and we may as well be pluralists about that too. Pain is the classic negative value. Again, there are some newly emerging candidates. Reading the very good book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I started getting the feeling Michael Pollan wanted to nominate corn as an inherent negative. Yes, CORN.

Pollan has determined that one quarter of products in a modern supermarket contain corn, from jams (that contain corn syrup) to meat, which nowadays is often corn converted to flesh. You can examine the cells in a person’s body and find out how much corn they’ve been eating (directly or indirectly), based on the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12. Based on some biological studies, Pollan concludes that Americans are “corn chips with legs.”

Reading this, I certainly felt alarmed. Ever since, I’ve been noticing how everything contains corn syrup. I’ve also noticed that food tastes better when it doesn’t contain corn syrup. But I also wonder about the underlying assumption. Is corn actually bad?

Reading further in the book, you find out there might be some realistic worries about monoculture. If we’re hit by some corn disease, then we’ll all be in trouble. But more than that, I came to think that what’s really bothering Pollan is probably not corn, but another four-letter problem—DULL. The problem is too much of the same thing. Our physical environment is becoming homogenous, our diets are becoming bland. Corn, corn, corn is dull, dull, dull.

Pollan writes as if he’s hit upon a genuine, objective negative, but in the end he seems to be exploring the territory of taste. Dull is bad, but maybe just to a consummate foodie with a sophisticated palate.

To be continued…

More Philosophy Please

Hot off the press

Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers.

And what’s this?  Studying philosophy will even increase your sex appeal.

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

“That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

Wow!  More in Sunday’s New York Times.