Monthly Archives: January 2010

Eating the Happy Dead


Image by yum9me via Flickr

In my previous post I mentioned that reading an  article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”,  got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it. I addressed the first issue in that post and I now turn to the second issue.

Some folks who were (or still claim to be ) vegetarians have returned to eating meat and justify their consumption by making a moral argument. The gist of the argument is that the morality of eating meat rests not on the eating of meat but on how the animal was treated prior to becoming meat. To be more specific, the idea is that if the animal is lovingly raised in an environmentally sustainable way, then the consumption of its dead flesh is morally acceptable. In contrast, eating meat raised in the usual way (such as factory farming) is not acceptable.

There does seem to be some merit to this argument. If it is assumed that the unhappiness and happiness of animals matters, then a stock utilitarian argument can be trotted out. Treating food animals well generates more pleasure for the animals and, in contrast, treating them badly generates more pain. If pain and pleasure are the currency of morality, then treating food animals well would be morally better than treating them badly.

From this it would presumably follow that folks who only eat the animals who were well treated would have the moral high ground over those who eat animals who suffered before becoming meat. This is because the folks who eat the happy dead are not parties to the mistreatment of animals. Except, of course, for the killing and eating part. After all, both the happy cow and the sad cow meat…I mean “meet” the same end: death and consumption.

The fact that the animals, happy or sad, end up as meat might be seen as what is important to the ethics of the situation. This seems reasonable. After all, if someone intends to kill me my main concern is with my possible death and not whether the killer will be nice or not.

But it also seems reasonable to be concerned about what comes before. To use an analogy, imagine two legal systems. While both hand out the same punishments, one system treats suspects horribly: they are locked in fetid cells, poorly fed and treated with cruelty. The other legal system treats suspects reasonable well: they can get out on bail, cells are clean, the food is adequate and cruelty is rare. There seems to be a meaningful distinction between the two and this would also seem to hold in the case of meat.

As such, I do think that the folks who eat the happy dead can claim a slight moral superiority over those who dine on cruel food. But, there is still the obvious concern about whether the consumption of meat itself is acceptable or not.

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Fallacy Interview

For those who would like to learn more about fallacies or just hear what I sound like, I was recently interviewed on that subject. Here is the link:

Yes, this is a shameless act of self-promotion. But, it is not commercial in nature so it is okay. Right? 🙂

The Meaning of Life

Talk about meaning makes sense in many contexts. We talk about the meaning of words and sentences, the meaning of smoke on the horizon, or meaning of a drop in stock prices. We ask people what they mean by what they say or do. Sometimes ‘meaning’ is another name for ‘purpose’ or ‘intention.’ In these contexts, we can discuss questions about meaning, and, even if the reasoning is difficult, we know what we are talking about. The case is different when people ask in a general way ‘What is the meaning of human life or of a particular human life?’

This is an important question because apparently people have a need to feel that they are living a meaningful life, or that human life itself has meaning. However, the question is not like that about the meaning of words, smoke or the stock market. So, what kind of meaning are people seeking? Perhaps the felt need for meaning originates in an existential dissatisfaction with life not shared by the other animals. A distant observer would never know this by looking at us. If intergalactic zoologists spent a few centuries simply observing life on earth from a space ship and cataloging its inhabitants, would they have any special reason to distinguish human life from the life of other animals? I doubt it. Human beings are unique, but no more so than the other animals. What the zoologists would see are simply various kinds of animals living out their species-specific life cycles.

For example, they would see humans going about their lives eating, sleeping, excreting and reproducing, things all animals do. However, no one asks what the meaning of life is for badgers or skunks, nor do badgers and skunks seem to ask that question. They simply live out their lives, replace themselves and die. How different are we? To the intergalactic zoologists, I believe humans would appear on a par with other animal species.

Somehow it is not enough for humans to live an animal life, die an animal death, and simply vanish into the mists of time. Such a life seems to lack meaning for creatures who are aware of the prospect of death, change and how everything ends. Perhaps the question of meaning is important for humans because it would be reassuring to believe that something is saved from the wreck of time. The dream of immortality, in whatever form, is also part of the attempt to elevate human life beyond the natural realm. Religion also speaks to this search for a transcendent meaning of life.

What I believe the intergalactic zoologists would note about the human animals under their purview is that they are essentially meaning machines. Humans generate meanings wherever they go, and so it is only natural that they would ultimately ask about the meaning of life itself. The trouble is that the concept of meaning has boundaries beyond which it no longer makes any sense to speak of meaning. This is similar to Kant’s complaint that concepts having their proper applications in one area are inappropriately applied to another. An example is Kant’s criticism of the use of the concept of causality beyond its use in understanding the empirical world to explain the existence of the universe as a whole.

Does the same thing happen when we start asking about the meaning of life? Is it possible to extend the concept of meaning beyond its many legitimate applications to the concept to life itself? The answer would give human life a transcendent meaning, or ‘Meaning’ with a capital ‘M’. The search for this kind of meaning leads directly to thoughts about God making the universe and human life meaningful. This is where reincarnation and immortality come in, so that this life we live is not ‘just for now’ but has an eternal import. There is a great fear that if this kind of Meaning is absent from human life, then human life is utterly meaningless.

The search for transcendent meaning and the thought that life would be meaningless without it is very like a category mistake. The truth is that humans cannot help living meaningful lives, even without any greater meaning. Indeed, the view that life is meaningless itself confers meaning on life, if only in a negative sense.

There may be no transcendent meaning of life, but there is something to the quest for it that many people believe makes their lives meaningful. Perhaps what people are looking for is a meaning for their lives that goes beyond their own merely particular concerns and activities. We feel better if we think that our lives are part of a larger concern. Such a concern gives us a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. However, this is a meaning that life can have without projecting some even greater meaning upon it.

On a lower level, personal meanings permeate the lives of individuals. Things and people matter to us and give our lives meaning with a little ‘m’. Without those ‘little meanings’ life would indeed be empty and meaningless in a way that causes true distress. Little things like small acts of kindness, support for friends, gatherings in celebration, condolences in times of sadness, all give life meaning even if not a transcendent ‘Meaning’.

So, in conclusion, I would argue that there are three levels of meaning to human life. One is misguided and two are legitimate. First is the misguided search for a ‘Great Meaning’ that gives significance to life as a whole. Next is the meaning conferred on a life that cares for something more than the simple satisfaction of personal desires. Examples are political or humanitarian causes in which we join together with others to do something beyond the power of any individual. Finally, there are the little meanings of everyday life that come from living with others and acting in the world. These include the memories and anticipations of daily life, as well as the things of personal significance that surround us. On these lower levels of meaningfulness, there is no doubt that human life has meaning. On the higher level, the question of whether human life is meaningful is itself meaningless.

Vegetarians Who Eat Meat?

Spit barbecue meat hanging on Avenue C in the ...

Image via Wikipedia

I recently ran across an article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”, which got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it.

On the face of it, a vegetarian cannot eat meat and remain a vegetarian. To use an analogy, just as a bachelor cannot be married, a vegetarian cannot be a meat eater.  Of course, some folks might wish to be able to call themselves “vegetarians” yet have the occasional cheeseburger. A conversation with such a person  at a party might go like this:

Vegetarian: (loudly) “Does this have meat in it? I’m a vegetarian, so I want to avoid eating any meat.”

Me: “Yes, that ham salad has ham in it. That’s meat, you know. But, I’ve seen you eat meat recently-like that cheeseburger you had the other day.”

Vegetarian: “Well, I do have a little meat now and then. But I’m still a vegetarian.”

Me: “Ah. I know some people who practice abstinence that way: they only have a little sex now and then.”

But perhaps being a vegetarian is not like being abstinent, but rather like being honest. An honest person does not stop being honest just because they tell a fib now and then. What matters is that such a person is mostly honest. As such, perhaps being a vegetarian is like being honest: they do not have to always avoid meat to justly keep the label, they just have to do so the majority of the time.

Also, there are many variations on the vegetarian theme, so a person could (with a suitable category choice) be a vegetarian and still consume meat. This, of course, does lead to some questions about what it means to be a vegetarian if people can claim that title despite consuming meat. But, as I see it, as long a they are not too self-righteous about it there is no harm in letting them enjoy their self applied title.

I’ll address the second issue in my next blog post.

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Spare a Thought For the Thought Experiment

In his paper Epiphenomenal Qualia Frank Jackson invites us to consider the imaginary case of Mary, kept in a monochromatic room from birth and who, presumably out of boredom, spends her time becoming acquainted with all that neuroscience can tell us  regarding the mechanisms that underlie our experience of colour vision. Mary herself has never seen a red object, but when it comes to the physical facts that attend such an experience, she knows them all. What, Jackson asks, would happen were she to be released from her room and to see a red object for the first time? Would she learn something new? Surely she would: she would learn what the experience of seeing a red object is like. But in that case would it not follow that, since she already knew all the physical facts about “seeing red”, what she learns must be a “non-physical fact” (a fact not present in the developed neuroscience of colour vision)? And if there are such “non-physical” facts does it not follow that physicalism is false?

Jackson’s “knowledge argument” against physicalism has its detractors. These days they include Jackson himself who has, in his own phrase, “capitulated” to the orthodoxies of scientific materialism. More generally we can ask the question: what should we do when the results of a thought experiment are inconsistent with the prevailing view? Abandon the thought experiment? Or abandon the prevailing view? And is there a core philosophical principle, some piece of metaphilosophy, to which we can appeal in order to settle the matter?

Some argue that thought experiments tend to confuse what is possible (in the conceptual sense) with what is imaginable (in the epistemic sense). Thus Hilary Putnam: you can imagine that you can imagine that you are a “brain in a vat” and that what you take to be your thoughts and sensations are a collective and systematic misrepresentation of the world “as it really is”  but what you imagine you imagine is in fact no such thing. A brain in a vat would not be able to imagine itself to be a brain in a vat: the very notion is incoherent (an implication, Putnam argues, of a true theory of meaning). Similarly Bernard Williams has suggested that thought experiments which invite us to imagine ourselves in this or that scenario will often overlook that we are embodied originators of our own projects and goals, and that this fact describes an ineliminable feature of our personal identity. Thus when John Rawls constructs his version of political liberalism via the imagined consent of a freely choosing rational agent operating from behind a “veil of ignorance”, Williams will point out that when the free agent takes the veil she ceases to be an agent at all.

Small wonder then that the thought experiment passes in and out of fashion. The late philosopher of mind and freedom activist Kathy Wilkes described her own book on personal identity as being philosophy without thought experiments. John Searle in a series of exchanges with Paul and Patricia Churchland complained that the problem with thought experiments was their failure to preserve the philsophically salient features of the problem they are intended to illuminate. Pretty cheeky perhaps, from the inventor of the Chinese Room. But not without chutzpah.

Some of the great exponents of the thought experiment appreciate also the value of the genuine experiment. None more so than Berkeley who on one occasion attempted to hang himself in order to generate a near death experience. The episode is described by Oliver Goldsmith who noted that it was agreed that:

….his companion would take him down at a signal agreed upon…Berkeley was therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and Berkeley had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor….

So take note: the next time you hear of a pop star or actor who has passed away in embarrassing circumstances things might not be so tawdry as first appears. Their final thoughts might have been deep ones.

God & Haiti

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 07:  Conservative evange...

Pat Robertson recently claimed, in effect, that God has struck Haiti with an earthquake because of the practice of Voodoo. This is, of course, based on the 1st Commandment that folks are not to have any gods before God.

As a hypothesis, this seems rather implausible. After all, if God was in the practice of smiting people who violate His rules, then there would certainly be much more smiting going on. God’s rules are routinely violated, yet God does nothing. It seems rather odd that if God enforced His rules, He would just elect to strike Haiti and ignore so many other violations.Or perhaps God works in arbitrary ways, punishing violations of His rules randomly or just when He feels like it. While this is a possibility (and seems to match the Old Testament in some ways) such behavior seems to be inconsistent with a God who is rational and good.

Also, if God is good then He would presumably strike only those who deserve to be struck. Yet, the earthquake has harmed young children and infants, who surely have committed no offense against God. Since God is supposed to be all powerful, He surely could smite with greater precision. After all, we have precise weapons in our arsenals, so the supreme being should be able to at least match our capabilities. Or perhaps God only has weapons of mass destruction on hand and hence has to slaughter the innocent in order to smite those who have earned His wrath.

As such, it seems rather unreasonable to claim that God has struck Haiti as punishment. The most plausible hypothesis is that the earthquake was a purely natural phenomenon and, having no will or purpose, struck everyone impartially.

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Homeopathy Overdose

I’ve just learned that a Mass Homeopathy Overdose is planned for 20 January, mostly in protest of Boots continuing to sell homeopathic remedies.  There are details here. As they say on the internet, at first I lol’d.  I also had the usual thoughts about homeopathy doing no real harm, maybe even having a placebo effect — so what’s the bother?  There is a short discussion here about some of the harm. At least some philosophers are involved.  We have a long tradition of scepticism, and maybe we’re ideally suited to debunking such things.

Why bother, if the harm is mostly minimal?  Another sort of harm which almost never gets a hearing has to do with mental states and the sense in which a world with  homeopathy in it is not as good as a world without it.  I’ve had similar thoughts about CCTV, Google, fox hunting, mobile phones and the X Factor.  No doubt someone thinks these things are necessary evils, anyway just inconveniences which don’t do much harm.  But there is harm, the mental analogue of the cellular degradation associated with heavy background radiation.  These things don’t usually damage us directly — sometimes they even seem of use.  But all the while, almost imperceptibly, we all get a little more stupid as a result of having them around.

God & Disasters

Lisbon in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake...

Image via Wikipedia

When natural disasters strike it is common for people to pray for assistance and rely on their faith for comfort. The earthquake that devastated Haiti has been no exception. When watching the news coverage of the terrible aftermath I saw many people mention how they had prayed and how they had been relying on their faith.

On one hand, it would seem to be cruel and callous to offer any philosophical discussion of prayer and faith in such a context. After all, in such a disaster people need something to sustain them and give them hope. If this involves faith, then so be it.

On the other hand, there is certainly something here well worth discussing.

When watching the news clips of people speaking about prayer and faith in the face of an earthquake, I was reminded of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. in philosophy, this event is best remembered in the context of Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz‘ claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. After all, it is rather difficult to reconcile the idea of a benevolent and all powerful God with such natural disasters. David Hume also wrote on this problem and explicitly criticized Leibniz.

Rather than focus on the problem of evil, the point I am addressing is that it seems rather odd to pray to God in such a context. After all, if it is assumed that God exists and has the usual attributes (all good, all powerful and all knowing) then praying would make no sense. This is because the earthquake was allowed (or perhaps caused) by God. He knows about the event and hence prayer is not needed to let God know that a disaster has struck. Since He is all powerful, He could render aid. However, if He did not want the disaster to strike, then it would not have occurred. Praying to God would be like asking for help from the person who is punching you in the face-obviously that person is not going to render aid. Finally, if God is good then He would not need to be asked to help. A good being does not watch from the sidelines waiting for someone to beg for help. Further, if the initial disaster is compatible with God’s goodness (and perhaps part of his plan), then allowing people to continue to suffer would seem to be just as compatible. As such, praying for assistance would seem to make no sense at all (except insofar as a psychological salve).

As far as faith goes, it also seems odd to be sustained by faith in such situations. After all, God has shown that He is willing to allow terrible things to happen (or cause them to occur). Having faith in such contexts would seem to be somewhat like remaining in love with a cruel abuser. At the very least, if you look among the aid groups then you will see no angels. Oddly enough, God never shows up for His disasters.

Fortunately, people do. So, it makes sense to ask other people for help. Unlike God, we respond and take action. Then again, perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one here to help us but us.

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Is there a Science of Happiness?

The topic of human happiness or felicity has a long history. From Plato and Aristotle to the cynics, stoics, epicureans and skeptics, there have been no end of philosophical treatises defining happiness and describing different ways of attaining it. Faith, too, speaks of human happiness within the context of a religious tradition. In theistic religions, human happiness is achieved through living a ‘godly’ life here on earth in the hopes of eternal felicity after death. The topic is huge and the angles are many, but, until now, there has been no concerted effort to organize our thoughts about happiness into an empirical science.

Philosophers and theologians can only speculate, the new idea is to bring philosophy into an interdisciplinary arrangement containing both fairly hard and rather softer social scientific theories. Richard Layard, in his book “The New Science of Happiness” brings philosophy, psychology, economics and neurophysiology to bear on the question of human happiness, what it is, and what we can do collectively and individually to promote happiness in the world.

On Layard’s reasonable view, happiness involves both external conditions and the internal attitudes and mental states of individuals. Again, plausibly, we are not to impose on everyone an idea of happiness generated by high-minded philosophers or divine-minded theologians. We are to start with what ordinary people think. What makes this a “science” of happiness is the use of empirical data in calculating what is or is not conducive to happiness or an ingredient in the happy life. This empirical approach uses the results of ‘happiness’ questionnaires. One involves coming up with a ‘well-being’ index, another with a ‘life-satisfaction’ index. People taking the questionnaires subjectively rank their well-being or life-satisfaction.

From these exercises we learn both how happy a person feels at the given time, and what the person thinks are the main ingredients of a happy life. What we do not learn from them, however, is how reflective the subjects of the questionnaires are in making their judgments about what the good life is for them. What people generally think will make them happy are just the sorts of things that philosophers and theologians find far down the list of truly valuable things.

The usual suspects are things like pleasure, wealth, status, fame, glory, power, good looks, fancy possessions, a snazzy car and the right address. Take the ends that matter to you and measure yourself against them. It is only at that point that you can estimate how happy you are. We need the idea of a good we are aiming at before we can know how close or far away we are from attaining it.

The philosophy of choice, for Layard, is Utilitarianism. We are to conceive of a ‘common good’ and work toward that end in a non-coercive fashion. Each person’s happiness is of equal value, so utilitarianism fits a democratic model of government. Within this framework, and armed with the results of thousands of questionnaires, the other sciences plug in and bring their expertise to bear.

The new field of ‘positive psychology’ tries to develop interventions, tools or techniques to raise a person’s ‘set point’ of happiness. Each of us has a normal range of happiness, to which we return after our spirits are lifted or lowered by good and bad events. The set point of happiness involves a person’s genetic inheritance and background, but also, importantly, the individual’s attitude and state of mind. Positive psychology tries to develop strengths rather than fight weaknesses and flaws. It looks at healthy functioning people, rather than unhappy neurotics and psychotics. We discover that diet, exercise and meditation can play a large role in cultivating a calm mind and tranquil spirit.

“Happiness Economics” looks at the external conditions that, as people self-describe them, make happiness a possible project. It may be that everyone ultimately wants to be happy, but that end is a long way off for someone who does not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, or shelter from the elements. This new approach factors into its theory the effects on happiness that different economic arrangements have. Instead of simply looking at the GNP as an index of happiness and well-being of a society, the happiness economists consider wider aspects of the society and people as we find them in life, not the famous “homo economici” of economic theory. As the King of Bhutan put it, we should be looking instead to increase the GHP, the Gross Happiness Product.

Finally, neurophysiology is entering exciting new territory with its sophisticated methods of non-invasive brain scanning. More and more is being learned about the function of different parts of the brain in processing information and what lights up when people describe themselves as feeling a particular emotion or state of mind. It seems clear that the brain is the physical platform for mental and emotional functioning. We will continue to learn more about the mind-brain system, though the philosophical import of all this is still unclear. The question of consciousness is a very hot topic in philosophy and is likely to continue to be so in the future.

In conclusion, I confess that I still do not know if a science of happiness is possible. It is certainly a brave attempt at integrative thinking. My hesitation in indorsing it comes from a disquiet I have about its empirical credentials. How can we criticize any life-plan for happiness? Can we choose between the worth of lives? Just because I find the idea of lying around all day drinking beer and watching football unappealing, does not mean that it cannot be another person’s happiness. I know that philosophers have been critical of what most people think will make them happy. For Plato, knowledge is virtue, and living virtuously is the essence of living happily. For Aristotle, happiness is our final good. On his account, the contemplative life is the happiest, and after that living in accordance with the moral virtues. The Stoics find our happiness in fortitude and duty, the epicureans in the pleasures of discourse and high thinking, the cynics in transcending conventional wisdom and morality, and skeptics in a willing suspension of belief through which they attain peace of mind.

Perhaps the way forward is to see happiness under two headings. The first is studied by the science of happiness, the second by philosophical investigation. The first starts with peoples’ assertions about what makes them happy and how happy they are. The second starts from reflections on one’s life as a whole, taking into account how one is feeling at the moment, but not resting there. The question of the good and happy life is one that each individual must undertake for himself or herself. It involves choosing a life that reflects one’s basic values and approach to life. Is it an admirable life or not? I am not sure that true happiness is compatible with living what, in one’s own view, is a contemptible, mediocre or purely mundane life. There is no doubt that all this new scientific work will augment our personal reflections on happiness and how to achieve it, but I am yet to be convinced that we will be able to make people happy through a scientific method. I would be happy to be proved wrong.

The Turner Prize: I Miss Out Once Again

And so for the third year running the Turner Prize judges have passed me over in favour of an endorsement of modern so-called art. This year’s winner, an abstract mural by Richard Wright, is arresting enough but not innovative in the manner of my own entry: my training run from last Friday, conducted in front of a number of respected critics including Professor Hermione Nugget (Chair of the Department of Gender Outreach Studies, at the University of the West Country).

I really thought I was in with a shout this time. Especially given the feedback. My refusal to wear a garmin satnav fitness watch was described approvingly as “an attempt to place the run within the parameters of the traditional artistic canon without itself being bound by the constraints of that canon”. My distinctive running gait was said to be “the very opposite of poetry in motion and all the more iconoclastic for that” (I thought I was a mild overpronator but these critics had seen more than I). When I slipped and landed on my backside on the descent from Westwood into Bradford-on-Avon, the moment was praised as being “emblemtaic of the collapse of bourgeois aesthetic standards under the weight  of their internal contradictions”. Furthermore my place within the running pack (last, and behind a woman to boot) was described as being “a paradigm of developing neo-Hegelian subversions of the typical male hierarchies” (a good thing, apparently).

At one point I thought I’d embarrassed myself. On returning to the clubhouse I noticed that somebody had left the veranda door open and before I could stop myself the words were out: “For God’s sake can somebody shut that door?! I wasn’t brought up in a barn you know!” I turned to the critics, with every intention of apologising but was assured that no such apology was necessary on the grounds that my “my iconoclasm with respect to the prevailing religious stereotype involved a subtle restatement of a more desirable secular heterodoxy”. I was assured that I would get extra marks for that.

But it wasn’t to be and so once again I am a runner up (no pun intended).  It has been suggested that I write to the Turner judges and request the Appeals Procedure but this is no longer possible because, due to an administrative error, the Appeals Procedure did itself win the Turner Prize in 2003 and now sits in a designated viewing area within the Tate Modern (viewing by appointment only).

Oh well. There’s always next year. I might enter my 2002 London Marathon PB…..