Monthly Archives: March 2009

Am I Still a Runner?

While philosophers most often wrestle with academic problems that generally do not impact their personal lives, sometimes we do consider such matters. Sometimes we are forced to do so.

I wrote my dissertation on the problem of universals. To make a long story short (and less dull), the gist of the problem is solving what it is for a particular (say, Obama) to be of a type (say, human). Currently one of my concerns is what it is for me to be a runner.

I have this concern because after almost 30 years of running I finally sustained an injury (ladder and stupidity related, of course) that prevents me from running or even walking without a massive full leg “soft cast” and a crutch. I’m seeing a specialist Thursday to see the full extent of the damage. Since I have defined myself as a runner for decades, this injury has hurt me both physically and metaphysically. Runners who are reading this know what I mean. Non-runners are no doubt thinking that my injury is but a small thing in comparison with the serious woes of others. I agree: things c0uld be much worse. I could be dying of cancer, I could be starving, I could be in prison in a despotic state, and so on. But, as with each of us, my situation is significant to me.

In some cases, being or not being something is fairly straightforward. For example, take a tree. When a  tree is chopped down and burned in a fireplace, then it is clearly no longer a tree.  However, the situation changes when being something involves an intermittent activity rather than a constant state of being.

Running, obviously, is an intermittent activity. Even when I was running everyday (without missing  a day for 23 years) I was not running non-stop. However, I would say that I was quite obviously a runner even when I was not actually running. Of course, it might be tempting to say that I was only a runner while running and not when I was not running-this would neatly and easily solve the problem.

However, that neat and easy solution does not satisfy. To use a silly example, imagine that at a party a friend introduces me to Sally and says “Mike is a runner” and Sally says “No, he’s not. He’s not right running now.” That would, of course, be an odd thing to say. Intuitively, I would still be a runner even when I’m not running. Just as I am still a philosopher when not philosophizing or a teacher even when I’m not teaching.

However, there do seem to be limits to being a runner (or any similar thing). For example, suppose someone introduces George as a runner and George says “well, I haven’t run in ten years.” In that, case, it would seem reasonable to say that George was a runner but no longer is one.

In my case, my plan is to return to running no matter how bad my injury turns out to be. I figure this is easily doable: I’ve seen people running who have lost both lower legs. Perhaps my intent to return sustains my status as a runner.

However, I do worry that at some point in time I will no longer be a runner-just a guy who used to be a runner. Just a guy who hopes and plans to run again some day as he watches his running shoes gather dust. Because I am quite familiar with the line drawing fallacy (a variant of the false dilemma), I know that there is no specific line between being a runner and then becoming a non-runner. Hence, I cannot mark a specific date on my calendar with “no longer a runner.”    But, I do believe that if I go too long without running, I will cease to be. A runner, that is.

I suspect that the non-runners reading this are wondering what the big worry is-what is so important about being a runner? Why does it matter?

The answer is, of course, psychological: it matters because it matters to me. It matters because being a runner is part of who and what I am-should I lose that, I lose a part of  myself.

On Drunken Sex

This is an interesting and thorny issue.

Just so we don’t get side-tracked here, let me say for starters that almost always I would think it wrong for a man to have sex with a very drunk woman.

But the issue of criminalising the behaviour… it’s difficult. Specifically, what’s the response to this argument:

1. A very drunk woman cannot consent to sex; therefore, if sex takes place it is rape;


2. If a very drunk woman cannot consent to sex, it must also follow that a very drunk man cannot be expected to determine whether consent is real or whether it is purely alcohol fuelled. So in that sense he’s not culpable (he will genuinely believe she has consented);


3. It’s up to the man to ensure that he’s capable of determining whether consent is given; you can’t go around inadvertently raping people;

Response to counter-argument:

4. It’s up to the woman to ensure she’s capable of accurately indicating whether she’s consenting; it’s no good saying ‘Yes’, thinking you mean ‘Yes’, and it turns out when you sober up didn’t mean ‘Yes’.

Further counter-argument:

5. Surely even a drunk man will know if a woman has been drinking; that’s all he needs to know to know he must not have sex;

Further response to counter-argument:

6. Not that straightforward. For all kinds of reasons actually – not least of which there is a lot of space between tipsy (where surely consent is possible) and paralytic (where it is not).

Basically, in other words, if drink takes away the ability to consent, why does it not also take away the ability to determine whether consent has been given? And why – if it is the case – should the burden of sobriety – and thereby ensuring “real” consent – fall on the man?

Obviously, this argument only applies to a very particular situation: where two people willingly engage in drunken sex, and where consent – by the woman – would not have been given without the drink. I’m not making any claim here about whether this situation would actually result in criminal action in the UK. I suspect it’s up for grabs.

And finally – just because I’m nervous this conversation might kick off – if you’re tempted to tell me I”m a misogynist: (a) I’m not interested; and (b) I’m actually a misanthrope – I dislike both sexes equally.

The Life You Can Save

singerI’m writing a review of Peter Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (for TPM) and will be posting about the book here in a week or two.  So…get your copy now, if you want to join the discussion.  The book is pitched to a very broad audience, but I think/hope there will be goodies in it for the anointed as well.

I’ve been amused to see early reactions around the Internet.  One Amazon reviewer says that Singer is Hitler, yes Hitler, for encouraging people in affluent countries to make major sacrifices to end extreme poverty.  On the other hand, someone at wrote in to say she has started giving everything away, sounding as if she’d just read the book.

Singer starts by asking if you happen to have a soda in hand as you’re reading.  The $1.50 it cost you is more than “the bottom billion” have to live on for an entire day.  The whole book is an exhortation to do more, but whether it succeeds or not, it’s interesting. Is having a soda morally wrong?  It’s a great question.

Group Twitter

Lately I’ve been sounding like a grumpy old woman, at least to myself. I keep railing about “kids today” and the way they text each other constantly. In my defense, I think: Hey, I have a blog and a website, and I use email constantly!   But the constant trivial back-and-forth of texting!  Tsk. Tsk.

Even worse, what about Twitter?!  Who needs to send little 140 character reports about what they are doing out into the world?  How trivial! How self-absorbed!  Tsk. Tsk.

All these things–texting, twittering, emailing, blogging–lift you out of the social world around you, as if the really important connections must be with someone else “out there.”  When my daughter texts while sitting with her family in a restaurant, she does imply that we’re not quite up to snuff. But then, as she wisely points out, I do the very same thing when I sit in a room with my kids and visit TP or answer email.  Isn’t Twitter just adding to the disconnection?

But then I started getting curious.  I visited a few Twitter pages, and discovered there’s a kind of poetry and immediacy that results from the constraints. Plus, the tantalizing sense of getting a real-time glimpse into someone’s life.  You might find out what they really think, or what they really eat for breakfast. OK, maybe not that tantalizing.  But there might be something to this!

I’m curious about the art form.  So here’s what I propose:  group Twitter. You and I get to see what it’s like to Twitter, without really doing it.  You have to say what you are doing, in 140 characters or less.  One more contraint–this is a philosophy blog (in a broad sense).  So don’t say you are buttering toast.

I promise to contribute, if anything interesting happens today.  So far it’s just me, my computer screen, a cup of coffee, and the squirrel I can see out the window. It’s a day like any other day.  We’ll see if anything develops!

Google’s Ghost

According to the Daily Telegraph, a ghost has been spotted on Google’s Street View thingy (which is very cool).

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a ghost hunter, so I tracked down said spook. Here “it” is from a different angle (click on the picture for a larger version):

google_ghostFeel free to email the Telegraph to congratulate them on such a spectacularly bad bit of journalism.

Madness, I tell you, madness!

Is it right to riot?

The G-20 is meeting in London on 2 April for a summit on the global financial crisis.  The stars have lined right up, and very nearly every protest group in the UK cannot believe its luck.  Finance ministers and central bank governors, world leaders, more or less anyone you might want to throw a pie at, will be gathered together in one city.  You can read all about what and when and who on mahalo and indymedia.  There are links with further details if you want to join in.

You can take part in many ways, in London and elsewhere, but should you?  I mean to think about the moral aspect of marching or engaging in unrest.  Does one have a moral obligation to do these things?

There will almost certainly be instances of civil disobedience.  For a moment, think of them as unlawful acts undertaken with a view to provoking a moral or emotional response in others, usually with political ambition.  Probably civil disobedience has done some good in the past.  Is there reason to think the G20 protests will do some good?  There are Kantian thoughts to be had here, but if you are in the mood for hedonistic calculus, there’s a lot to weigh up.  Who knows what will happen, but you have to choose to act or not to act.

No doubt it will cost London plenty of money to police it (and clean up after it).  It’s possible that innocent people will get hurt and property will be damaged.  Maybe decent people will get criminal records.  Maybe indecent people will take full advantage.  Maybe something really awful will happen.  Then again, it might nudge policy-makers in a good direction, change a few of the relevant minds, close down some avenues and open up others, galvanise  the public for a moment.  It’s done that in the past, or so many people think.  This is probably the hope of the majority of the people marching and chanting and protesting.  They’re trying to do something good.  When you see the images on the evening news, will you think of them as doing something wrong or right?

Ibn Rushd: The champion of reason

A slightly provocative title, but this is a second essay that I wrote for the series on the Great Philosophers that ran in the Independent newspaper last year.

The essay is here.

I ought to say that the Independent series itself was constructed out of a book that I wrote with fellow blogger, and proper philosopher, James Garvey. (He was the brains of the operation, I mainly just schmoozed with the publisher). It just happened that the Independent were short of a couple of entries, so I wrote up Burke and Rushd.

(The book is called “The Great Philosophers”. I think. It wasn’t a bad book, actually.)

Does Money Make You A Bastard?

According to some reports recently reviewed by the New Scientist (Why money messes with your mind) just thinking about money makes you less likely to help other people and less likely to trust them, too.  It’s possible that money stimulates some people’s pleasure centres, and for them money is a distal turn-on, maybe even the focus of addiction.  There may also be a connection between money and our appetite for food — individuals are less likely to give to charity if they feel hungry, and more likely to pig out if they think about having plenty of cash.

Consider the thought that money is tied to our brains at some low, hairy, gibbering monkey level — right down there with food and sex and the manifold of base, bodily pleasures.  I’m a little taken by the claim that just thinking about money, much less counting your supply and tucking it into your billfold, makes you less likely to help or trust other people.   If our connection to money is way down there, Preeeeecious, maybe there’s not a lot we can do about the  way it makes us behave. 

There is one thing you can do about it, one nuclear option.  Wittgenstein rejected his share of the family fortune.  Interestingly, he gave it to his brothers and sisters, who were already rich.  According to one story, he thought it best to give it to them, not the poor, because the poor would only be corrupted by it, and his rich siblings were past saving.  He made them promise not to give it back too.  He might have been on to something.

Questions of Truth (II)

The earlier thread is so long it’s surely at the breaking point.  Here’s a radio debate between Nicholas Beale and Julian Baggini.  Have fun.

Please Have Sex With My Son!

This is a strange story.

In essence, the mother of a fella with Down’s syndrome is keen that her son should experience sex, and has been saying so publicly (the BBC, Daily Mail, etc).

This is complex ethically. I spent a couple of years working with adolescents with Down’s syndrome, and the issue of their sexuality is a minefield. For example, we used to feed the contraceptive pill to a number of the older girls (16-18 years olds), on the grounds that there was a real possibility they’d end up pregnant. But, of course, there was absolutely no informed consent, and, in effect, it was a fairly straightforward example of negative eugenics.

So there’s that.

But there’s also an issue of informed consent with what’s going on with this lad Otto Baxter and his mother. I’m aware, of course, that people with Down’s syndrome have wildly differing intellectual capabilities, which makes it hard to generalise about these things; but nevertheless, it is certainly arguable that Otto cannot have given his consent for what’s happening to him now. After all, the number of 21 year olds who would allow their mother to talk on the BBC about how they’d really like to get layed must be vanishingly small. So it seems likely that his Down’s syndrome must have something to do with his consent. The response – “Ah, but his is a special situation, so that’s why he’s consenting”, doesn’t work, because one can imagine all kinds of “special situations” that might prevent 21 year olds without cognitive impairments from finding a sexual partner (e.g., agoraphobia), but it is almost unimaginable that they’d consent to their mother going on the radio to “help them out”.

But having said that, there are, of course, other ways to think about this. Otto’s mother could offer a straightforward utilitarian justification for her actions. There certainly are real issues here to do with the way that society treats disability and sexuality, and surely it’s got to be a good thing that these are being aired. Her son might, in a sense, be the means to an end, but such is the nature of utilitarian justifications – sometimes it is okay to treat people as means, not ends (and she could certainly argue that she’s doing both, anyway).

But, even so, it makes me uncomfortable. There’s just something in the thought that had Otto not had Down’s syndrome then he would have claimed a right to privacy. (Though there’s also something in the thought that it’s right to treat people with Down’s syndrome as rational actors, capable of independent decision making. It’s complicated!)