Monthly Archives: June 2008

Climate Change and World Security

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the effect that climate change will have on the security of nation states.  It turns out that climate change is not just a concern for idealists with beards.  Even realists with close-cropped hair can be nervous, because climate change will be a threat to US national security.  I thought we already had one or two, but some predict that there will be oil wars.  Much speculation follows a US national intelligence assessment concerning the impact of climate change on such things as terrorist recruiting.  Even the Russians are nervous.

All of this is very exciting, but it can distract us from something else.  There is a lot of human suffering on the cards, suffering caused by our fossil fuel use.  If we want to avoid some of this, what’s needed is not preparation for further conflict but co-operation on a planetary scale.  What’s needed are sea-walls, not barricades.

No doubt this is something of a long-shot.  We are, really, only just down from the trees, and sometimes it shows.   We are good at conflict and a bit lacking when it comes to co-operation.  You can recognize these facts about our dubious nature and still hope that we can do something better right now than plan for war.  We’ve had our moments in the past.  You can hope that we’ll recognize the moral case for action on climate change and do the right thing.

A Secular Age

Julian’s last post comes just as I’m finishing the introduction to Charles Taylor’s extremely well-reviewed new book A Secular Age. With more than 700 pages to go, I have no right to say anything about it, but here goes.

Taylor says that the decreasing role of religion in the public sphere in north Atlantic countries (“the west,” as we say) has created more non-believers and had an effect on those who still believe. Today, even if you believe, you don’t do so “naively,” by default, as a matter of course. You have other options. The 700 pages I have left are about how all this came to be.

Something in me rebels at the project, though maybe Taylor will wind up winning me over. I rebel, I think, because it’s not obvious to me that this new phenomenon of believing-with-options is interesting to the tune of 700 pages. There are two reasons why I’m underwhelmed.

First, the awareness of options seems to be unexceptional. Since I don’t live in a tiny isolated tribe, I know that many of my beliefs and values are not universal. I believe in monogamy (call me old fashioned) but others don’t. I prefer to keep my clothes on, but in many cultures you don’t have to. I believe in not killing animals for fun, but there’s probably someone living within a half a mile of me who kills animals for fun. I think women should be able to leave the house when they want to, but in some cultures that’s forbidden. And on, and on, and on. So I wonder—if I need to read 700 pages on how religious belief came to be just one option, do I also need to read 700 pages on how belief in monogamy came to be just one option? And another 700 pages on how belief that animals are expendable came to be just one option? Why is the change in attitude toward religion something to get so excited about?

The other worry I have is whether belief-when-there-are-options is all that different from just plain belief. I grant that when you first discover that some people believe in multiple gods, or multiple husbands, or clothes-optional swimming, or animal sacrifice, or whatever it may be, at first your own beliefs and values do seem less self-evident. It’s true that at this moment of losing your creedal virginity, you’re at risk of jettisoning what you naively believed. You may throw off your clothes and take on multiple husbands, or go squirrel shooting. I think for many people, though, that’s temporary. And in fact, the close proximity of people thinking and living in other ways can just make us more fervent and tenacious. We get into the business of thinking about why our views and way of life are superior, something the naïve, isolated folk never had to do.

Maybe I’m just being grumpy. I admit it’s a very interesting question what it means to live in a society, and a world, where vastly different beliefs and values exist side by side. I should probably atone for precipitously judging…and keep reading.

Is Charles Taylor the world’s most important philosopher?

He’s recently co-written a report for the Quebec government, he won the $1.6 million Templeton Prize last year, and now Charles Taylor has won the “Japanese Nobel”: the Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Philosophy. The award is bestowed by The Inamori Foundation which said:

A philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Taylor, 76, will receive the award for constructing a social philosophy that actively pursues the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures. By advocating “communitarianism” and “multiculturalism” from the perspective of “holistic individualism,” Dr. Taylor has developed an enlightened philosophy that allows people of different historical, traditional, and cultural backgrounds to retain their multiple identities while living together peacefully.
Dr. Taylor reasons that dialogue is the primary vehicle through which people develop identities and frameworks for determining what is good, what is valuable, what they should do, and what they support or oppose. In his view, human beings are “self-interpreting animals” that act with a sense of value and purpose ― they articulate everyday feelings and moral intuitions into language and act according to their own opinion of values and goals.
Dr. Taylor established a “philosophical anthropology” using the foundations of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and language-game theory in opposition to the atomistic view of the “self” and the concepts of human identity proposed by methodological individualism and behaviorism. He also opposes modern utilitarianism for leaving value judgments to the feelings and preferences of the atomistic selves, arguing that individuals are “situated selves” embedded in the fabric of social relations.
Key to Dr. Taylor’s “communitarianism” and “multiculturalism” philosophies is the concept of “recognition,” in which he contrasts the “dialogical self” with the “monological self” and offers “freedom in situation” in place of “absolute freedom.” He proposes that human beings can flourish only if their identities are recognized by others ― and, accordingly, that community bonds are necessary to realize individual autonomy. His principles provide rational grounds for the dignity of human beings living a deep diversity, and for their demands for recognition.

Taylor gets 50 million yen (approximately US$460,000), a diploma and a medal of 20-karat gold, in November. Does this confirm that in terms of influence, reputation and recognition, Charles Taylor is now the most important living philosopher in the world?

All man’s miseries

‘All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’ — Pascal

Maybe philosophers are better than anyone else at sitting in quiet rooms alone.  Most of us like it.  it’s part of the job description.  We read something and then think about it a bit.  We stare out of windows.  Sometimes there is a bit of finger-drumming or earlobe-pulling involved.  We do plenty of brow-furrowing.  Jerry Fodor says that he does his best thinking in showers, but probably he’s an exception.  Sometimes there’s a bit of music, but most of us get to work in quiet rooms.  Maybe we’d be miserable if we couldn’t get on with it in that way.

Probably Pascal didn’t have philosophers in mind when he had that thought about misery.  Heidegger and maybe also Schopenhauer, I think, come to a similar conclusion about the connection between misery and sitting quietly or maybe doing nothing.  Doing nothing is a kind of nightmare for most of us.  When we have no disctractions — no phones or Ipods or books to read, no pretty things to want or otherwise catch our attention — we fall into boredom very quickly, and for some of us it hurts.  Why that should be is an interesting question which doesn’t get much attention.  Some speculate that boredom is living in raw time, being in the moment, feeling the full weight of mortality and the horrible, horrible passage of time.  If it is all that, then it’s at least an authentic way to be, a way of facing up to the way things are.

You might try it.  Turn off your phone, unplug your head, switch everything off for a while and see what you get.  See what thoughts you have.  If Pascal is right, you might learn to avoid a certain sort of misery.  It’s a consolation you might reflect on the next time you find yourself stuck in traffic or  waiting for a train.

Memoir Ethics

Being a fan of David Sedaris, the very funny memoirist, used to make me feel good about myself. It was surely because I was perceptive that I “got” his quirky humor. After a while, though, I started to realize that everyone I know likes David Sedaris. At this point, with his latest book in the top five at, his readers (and listeners) can’t pretend they’re a rare breed.

David Sedaris is virtually a saint to a lot of people (National Public Radio types, especially) so it was quite a shock last year when The New Republic published a story questioning his veracity. It turns out his stories about his family and friends have not always been the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (Gasp!)

In his latest collection Sedaris tells a story about a babysitter who spent a week with him and his 5 siblings when he was 11. He talks about the monkey backscratcher she brought along with her, the sloppy joes she made for dinner every night, the Vaseline-like color of her skin. The details make the story come to life. Could he really remember all this stuff?

I got to thinking what sort of stories I could tell about my 10-year-old self. There’s one about the thrill of being invited to a sleepover by the most popular girl in the 5th grade. I’ve even got a good detail I could throw in. Her family had boxes of toilet paper they bought in bulk in the basement, which struck me as very odd. That’s a start, but the problem is that I could go on in that way for only another 3-4 sentences. I would have to make up 95% of the story.

So is it ethical to fill in extravagantly and pass off a story as the truth? The thing is, I don’t really think that’s what David Sedaris does. He’s a humorist, and that very fact tells us something. He’s gonna embellish. The wool is not being pulled over our eyes.

Another memoirist got into very hot water last year when it turned out he’d been making up a lot of stuff. James Frey had written a memoir about drug addiction and recovery, and it was actually highly relevant whether he did or didn’t really endure the things he described. After being publicly crucified on the Oprah Winfrey show for his distortions, he went into hiding and has just recently reappeared…..

With a novel, and one that’s getting great reviews! I rather like the fact that people are getting second chances after committing sins of this sort, because honestly the rules are a little fuzzy. One of the best books I’ve ever read is the memoir Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. It is such a seamless whole, and so touching and beautiful, that I can’t begin to worry about whether each line is exactly, perfectly true.

I do hope Sedaris isn’t playing too fast and loose with the truth. One of his chapters is about getting butt-enhancing underwear as a present from his sister, and in fact the women’s variety. If the bit about how they were women’s is an embellishment, I can live with that. If I learned he never received or wore butt-enhancing underwear, I’d be disappointed. As a memoirist, not a storyteller, he does have to be basically in the business of recounting, not fabricating.

What is Metaphysics?

What is metaphysics? In the Western tradition, metaphysics concerns the nature and description of an Ultimate Reality that stands behind the world of appearances. One dominant strand holds that we can somehow come to know a world that exists undetected by our sense perceptions and unexplained by the natural operation of causes and effects. Unfortunately, our powers of sensation and perception reveal to us only a partial survey of the contingent universe unfolding around us and within us. We are part of that unfolding process, no doubt, but we have profound limitations in what we can do and what we can know. We are radically limited in our contact with the universe, and it is hard to see how, in our embodied state, we can overcome these limitations. Despite all that our sciences have done to inform us of realities unknown to sense perception or naïve common sense, we are unable, using the normal touchstones of truth, to argue convincingly for the character of Ultimate Reality or for Beings that exist in a supersensible or supernatural world.

Despite this observation, no ink has been spared to describe and argue about the nature of a supersensible realm. Philosophers and theologians have claimed special dispensations from Reason or Divine revelation that gives them privileged access to a world beyond the one in which we live and have our being. With these magical means at hand, it seems to metaphysical thinkers that it should be possible to devise a systematic metaphysical theory that is both true and covers the ‘reality’ side of the “appearance versus reality” divide. Metaphysics is conceived as thinking that pierces the veil of appearances and gets right down to what is really real.

So, how is the ‘really real’ to be distinguished from the ‘apparently real’? A close examination of contingent perceptual experience reveals the outlines of metaphysical reality as precisely not the findings of ordinary experience. In experience we find a world of perceptible objects and imperceptible forces that we can measure and in some cases control. We discover a universe in a constant state of change. Stars are born, live and die, planets follow the came course, as do all things on them. We are the stuff of stars and follow their fate. Nothing remains the same. All things flow. This is what we know about the world of our sense experiences.

Metaphysical reality, in the Western philosophical tradition, is the negation of all this flux, namely, an unchanging Reality. However, it is notoriously difficult to say what an ever-changing universe has to do with an unchanging Reality. Additionally, the contingent world we know is morally and aesthetically imperfect, to say the least. It follows that Reality, by contrast, must be supremely good and beautiful. This strand goes right back to Plato, and the idea that there exists a world that is more ‘real’ and more ‘true’ and the ‘so-called’ real world we inhabit in our embodied state. This is the world of the perfect Forms, but their relation to the particulars of which they are the Forms is difficult to describe adequately. How can two things that have absolutely nothing in common be related to each other in any way whatsoever?

A short list of metaphysical theories from the history of philosophy features those that reduce reality to some underlying Substance. The ‘Father of Philosophy,’ Thales, famously thought it was water, but others thought is was “Air”, “Fire”, “Earth” and “water”, the “Indeterminate”, “Love and Strife”, “Atoms and the void”, “ Eternal Forms”, “Being qua Being”, “Mind and Matter”, “the Absolute”, “God”, or philosophical Substance. What is important for my purpose is to note the fact that these theories form such a large plurality. Many of them seem to survive in some form or other despite repeated attempts to refute them. No sooner are they advanced than they possess all the defenses against attack necessary to remain a possibility in the heaven of metaphysical theories. This should make us wonder if we are in a field that is capable of generating knowledge or consensus.

Logic fails to curtail metaphysical theorizing. Prudent philosophers, like Kant, despaired of curbing the ‘metaphysical impulse’ that insisted on confusing flights of fancy with knowledge of a supersensible world. It seems that we are programmed to think metaphysically and to attempt to conjure Reality out of thin air.

Kant showed that there is essentially no difference between traditional metaphysicians in the Western tradition, like Plato, Aristotle or Descartes, and the spirit seers, like Swedenborg, who spin gossamer webs of unseen worlds and powers, or theologians with their ideas of God, angels, devils and such. Against taking such thoughts as literally true, Kant argued that reason ought to stop at the bounds of sense, critically aware of the limitations of our powers of understanding. We simply cannot grasp infinity with our understanding, even though we can reason quite well about infinity in mathematics. Metaphysical ideas of God, soul, immortality, the Good, Freedom, Substance, and so on, are not logically impossible, but neither are there conclusive proofs for them.


Metaphysical thinking is misused when we take for reality the ideas we develop in a purely imaginative way. At this point magical thinking is endorsed, and the seeds of discord are sown. Since nothing can be proved to be true or untrue in metaphysics, the assertion of a metaphysical truth opposes other truths that claim metaphysical status. However, they cannot all be true together. Since no one can prove anything conclusively, the fight is really over which theory will triumph. When metaphysical thinking takes itself seriously as absolute truth and sets itself in opposition to all other pretenders, it claims a knowledge that cannot be justified except by extraordinary means.

Metaphysics is a form of magical thinking that intimates a productive relation with a supernatural reality or relies on faith to affirm its basic unprovable assumptions. As such, it is a species of imaginative projection. A single look at the variety of metaphysical, magical and religious systems that have existed in history shows just how hard the imagination is at work in metaphysical thinking. There is much that is wonderful about it as long as we recognize metaphysical thinking for what it is, and for what it is not. The power to think beyond the bounds of sense and empirical reason is a great boon as long as we do not take the conclusions of our speculations too seriously as the last word on what ‘is’ or ‘how things are.’

Indiana Jones and Philosophy

I’ve watched all four Indiana Jones movies in the last couple of weeks, thanks to having two 11 year old fans in the house. So I got to thinking–could I maybe make a million bucks by editing one of those “_____ and Philosophy” anthologies? The only problem is that I can only really think of one good Indiana Jones philosophy question. And that is–are there ultimate things we shouldn’t try to know or possess?

(Note: spoilers below. The new movie is lots of fun and worth seeing, even if you’re not dragged by a team of 11-year-olds.)

Now, the series really sets a pretty liberal limit. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the lovable, archeology professor hero searches for the ark of the covenant…and finds it! It’s only when the baddies dare to look inside that things go wrong (in a very fiery, cinematic fashion).

In The Last Crusade, Indiana searches for and finds (compare wild goose chase in The DaVinci Code) the holy grail–the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper–and it even has a chance to work some very important magic. Professorial inquisitiveness and derring-do will definitely get you pretty far, the Spielberg/Lucas team wants to tell us. It’s only when Blond Nazi Gal breaks the rules and tries to remove the cup from its sanctuary that she gets her just deserts and we get taught the lesson about overreaching.

In the latest movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, curiosity does not kill the cat until the cat has discovered some very cool ancient-skeleton- turned-alien creatures. Brunette Nazi Communist Gal obviously didn’t watch The Last Crusade and, once again, overreaches. Only this time, it’s not that she’s too acquisitive. Lucas-Spielberg have become a bit more anti-curiosity here. For simply wanting to know more about these aliens and their spaceship she is rewarded most colorfully.

So here’s where Indiana Jones meets philosophy. Should we accept the limits on what we can understand? Should we respect the mystery of ______? (fill in the blank) What is so sacred that we shouldn’t try to possess it and know all about it?


Later that day. Maybe there’s hope for the money-making anthology! There’s actually another theme. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Professor Jones tells his class that archeology is about facts. “If you want to know about truth,” he says, “take so-and-so’s philosophy class.” Question: What’s the difference between “facts” and “truth”? Is philosophy about “truth” and not “facts”? Hmm….this is starting to look more promising.

Duty to the truth

There’s a lot written about our self-regarding epistemic duties, the obligations one might have to onself to find out what’s true.  At the moment, though, I’m wondering about the epistemic obligations one might have to other pople.  I don’t mean the instances in which one is obliged to tell the truth.  Instead, I’m wondering when one is obliged to correct something false which someone else thinks is true.  A bit more formally:  under what conditions does one have an obligation to do something about someone else’s false beliefs?

It’s easy to hope for guidance in the thought that harmful beliefs ought to be corrected and then realise that working out what counts as a harmful belief isn’t straightforward.  That’s not to say that we aren’t on to something, just that what we’re on to is not easy.  Dangerous to life?  Ruinous to life?  Leads to a life less happy?  Whose life?  Taking other routes (without the ‘life’ signpost) leads to as many questions.

Sometimes a falsehood is dangerous in a fairly obvious sense (say a racist or sexist belief), but we ignore it anyway, even when it’s out in the open.  Sometimes we ignore it to deprive it of oxygen.  Sometimes we ignore it just as we look away from a blemish on a friend’s face.  Sometimes we ignore it hoping that it won’t find its way into practice.  I get the feeling that context matters — sometimes it seems right to look away.  In our everyday lives, regardless of high-minded philosophical talk, a duty to the truth gets trumped all the time.  But when is it right to let false beliefs pass without comment?  If we take a certain sort of stand, shouldn’t our lives change a lot?

Disabilities and the Good Life

I was sad to note today that Harriet McBryde Johnson has died. She was a lawyer, writer, and disability activist who wrote a great essay and book about her encounters with Peter Singer, who argues that euthanasia for disabled infants is morally acceptable in certain specific situations.

Singer is public enemy #1 for many people with disabilities, but Johnson found herself oddly comfortable debating him, first in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, and then at Princeton, where he invited her to speak. Here she was, face to face with a man who believes her parents wouldn’t have been wrong to have her killed, yet she couldn’t help but like and respect him. A woman with a big heart and an open mind!

Can serious disabilities keep you from living a perfectly good life? Of course, says Singer, while Johnson says No. The problem with having a disability, she says, is entirely socially manufactured. Society does much too little to accommodate differences, and it’s this that makes the lives of the disabled difficult. What is the nature of this “good life” that’s equally attainable by anyone, no matter how severe their disability? Well, she doesn’t quite say, but I surmise it’s “different strokes for different folks.” What’s good for me is one thing, what’s good for a person with a severe disability is (often) another.

The idea that there is a single way for all humans to flourish gets you into some silly ideas about people with disabilities. In Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice, the general picture is this: justice should be defined by results. In a just society, every human fulfills a set of human capacities (and each kind of animal fulfills the capacities typical of the species— the book also has a chapter about animals). The goal must be for every human, regardless of disability, to have human dignity, not just their own form of dignity.

To see how peculiar this view is, you have to think about what it would mean in practice. One of the distinctively human capacities is the capacity to participate in political activity. If disabilities stand in the way for “Sesha”—a person Nussbaum uses as an example–some facsimile of political participation should be arranged anyway. But wait, what if Sesha has no grasp of politics? What if she couldn’t care less? It’s still important for her to flourish by our species standard.

On such a notion of what the good life amounts to, a disability is entirely something to be overcome. Each person must in one way or another, symbolic or real, attain the goods that are definitive of being human. I’m with Johnson here. She attained the goods that are definitive of being Harriet McBryde Johnson, and to hell (I can hear her say) with any peculiarly human goods that were beyond her.

But then, there’s also a problem with Johnson’s view. Some disabilities are so severe as to put all goods off limits, or even to make life a constant misery. Why is even a life like that worth preserving? I like the fact that Johnson does not resort to vapid phrases like “the sanctity of human life”—she was an atheist–but the fact is that she doesn’t have an answer.

Johnson is featured in a chapter of my book about the good life, where I explain more about the Singer-Johnson debate and try to steer a course between them. Her book is called Too Late to Die Young, and though she didn’t really die young (she was 50), she died too soon.


Has philosophy responded adequately to big events?

For our tenth anniversary issue of tpm we put ten 10 questions to ten leading thinkers. Here is how they answered just one of them: Has philosophy responded adequately to the big events and debates of the last decade, such as climate change and the post-9/11 world? (The issue is still available to order here.)

Simon Blackburn:
Probably not, but then it is not very clear what kind of response we are professionally able to make. On climate change, I suppose we might start teaching stoicism again. On 9/11 we might try revisiting Clifford’s famous essay on the ethics of belief.

Jerry Fodor:
I suppose so; though I don’t think that responding to such issues is plausibly a philosophical responsibility. Has Art History responded adequately to the post-9/11 world? Why should philosophy be different?

AC Grayling:
No, there has not been enough response from philosophy; these are quintessentially matters that require exploration and debate, clarification, vigorous challenges to our too-ready reactions and our fears, and constantly renewed perspectives on how to think about them and how our world might best be managed in response to them.

Jaakko Hintikka:
No. Philosophers have failed to come up with constructive suggestions either on the practical or on the ideological level. For an important instance, philosophers could and should have combated much more determinedly the fundamentalist forces within different religions – Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim – that are the greatest divisive force in the world today. Constructive responses that could come to grips with the realities have here and elsewhere been hampered by the anti-scientist and relativistic biases of postmodernist philosophies.

Alasdair MacIntyre:
Academic philosophers are by and large no more competent at making political choices than other relatively well to do, comfortable, professionalised, middle class people. That is to say, not very competent. The question is: Who is paying the costs of climate change, post-9/11 conflicts, and globalisation? The answer is, as usual: those least able to pay them. Philosophers, including myself, have not focussed sufficiently on this issue, one that brings out the continuing relevance of Marx.

Colin McGinn:
No, but it hasn’t responded inadequately either – which would be worse. What would an adequate response look like? Philosophers should respond, but it’s not clear to me that philosophy should. (Compare responding to the Holocaust.) On the other hand, if someone came up with something genuinely useful philosophically, I’d be all ears.

Martha Nussbaum:
I think that there is a lot more work to be done! On issues connected to the entitlements of animals there has been some good work, and it is exciting to see the menu of theoretical options being expanded (especially by Christine Korsgaard’s recent Tanner Lectures). On the environment more generally, there is certainly a need for more good work. Issues of global justice have begun to receive the attention they deserve, and the nation-based paradigms with which we have all been operating have begun to be challenged, but there is a long way to go. I think that doing good work in the areas you name requires extensive empirical knowledge, and therefore partnerships with other disciplines such as economics, law, and history. Philosophers have not always formed such partnerships. However, I believe that the profession is now much more receptive to such empirically-informed work than it was in the recent past. I would like to see more first-rate philosophers turning to the topic of global justice, so that we would simply have more strong alternatives on our menu. Philosophy advances by argument and contestation, and we need more powerful worked-out theories of different types.

John Searle:
Problems like climate change or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are not really specifically philosophical problems. However, the capacity to reason philosophically has an important bearing on these problems, as it does on any serious intellectual problem, and I will illustrate that by discussing some of the points about “the war on terrorism”. There are two important philosophical mistakes made in current American and Coalition policy, and one of these may actually have some practical importance. The first point is that the expression “the war on terrorism” embodies a category mistake. If it is meant to be taken literally, “terrorism” names a method, and in the sense that one can have a war against Germany or Japan, it makes no sense to say we are having a war against terrorism. It would be like having a war against transportation. Now one might say, “Well, we are having a war against all terrorists.” But that, of course, is not true. There are many sorts of terrorists, such as the Basque terrorists in Spain or Irish terrorists in Northern Ireland, that we have not attempted to fight a war against. And this leads to the second point. In order to make sense of the war on terrorism, we have to interpret the concept of war metaphorically. Is it an apt metaphor for our current situation? I think the use of this term embodies a second mistake, which is the result of a very common fallacy, both in philosophy and among people in general. It is the fallacy of assuming that big events must have big causes. Because the attacks of September 11 were big events, we assume they must have big causes. But in fact, as far as we can tell, they did not. Here is the situation. Some years before September 11, there was an attempt made by similarly motivated Muslim terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center. They failed. Because they failed, no one took the attempt very seriously. They should have. Some years later, a group with the same inspiration – a group of fanatics – once again mounted an attack on the World Trade Center and other targets. This time they were both better organised and luckier. But the group (or groups) that mounted the first attack and the second never had more than a few thousand members, and is simply not a massive military force. Because the second attack was a big event, it was treated as if it merited a major international military response. In fact, the people we were fighting against were as confused and as fanatical as those we had dealt with before, or rather, failed to deal with before. However, once we announced that we were at “war”, we accorded them a status and a dignity that they had not previously had, and provided them with an ideal recruiting platform. As far as I can tell, al Qaeda has far more members now than it did before September 11, 2001.
Also, philosophically speaking, it is important to have a sense of scale. On September 11, about 3,000 people died. A terrible tragedy. Each day about 1,000 die in the US from smoking, and since the terrorist attacks about 100,000 Americans have been murdered. There are appropriate responses, but neither “war on smoking” or “war on murder” names them.
What should we have done instead? Instead of announcing a war on terrorism we should have announced a systematic and deliberate campaign to eliminate certain forms of terrorism. Attacking Afghanistan as part of this campaign seems to me perfectly legitimate. Attacking Iraq was a mistake, if only because Iraq had nothing to do with the events of September 11.

Peter Singer:
We didn’t focus enough on climate change in the early days, before it hit the headlines. Some did – Dale Jamieson was writing about this way back in the 1980s. But it’s so obviously a key ethical issue of our times that it is surprising more was not written and said. The “post 9/11 world” came upon us more suddenly, of course, so that’s a different story. Philosophers have responded, by discussing the ethics of war, of torture, and of responses to terrorism. I’m not sure that this has been adequate, but it’s hard to say what would have been.

Slavoj Zizek
What can philosophy do today, what can it tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? Its task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.
Measured with this simple standard, I think the result is mixed. It is not that philosophy did not address all the big burning issues – it did, maybe even too much and too directly, not questioning enough the very form they are perceived as problems. Does the critique of religious fundamentalism really oblige us to defend liberal democracy? Does a serious engagement with ecology really oblige us to accept new forms of obscurantism?