Monthly Archives: February 2010


This from Measure for Measure:

Angelo:  What’s this, what’s this?  Is this her fault or mine? 

The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?


Angelo’s question might have struck Elizabethan ears differently than it does ours.  An informal poll in the pub tells me that most people think the tempter is doing more wrong than the tempted.  The thought seems to be that actively talking someone into considering a wrong, someone who was just standing there, doing no wrong at all, is worse than being tempted to do wrong.  But perhaps Shakespeare’s audience thought that the contemplation of sin is sin enough.  If you think less about a tempting body and a person overcome by desire, and more about other sorts of cases, maybe you can see it the way they did.john-gielgud-as-angelo

Suppose I suggest that you steal that handbag over there.  No one’s looking, and there might be some good stuff in it.  My suggestion — my tempting you to steal — does look wrong, but if you really think about it, actually consider taking someone else’s property, then that’s a kind of wrong too.  Maybe it’s on a par with my tempting you.  Which act is worse?  My trying to talk you into it is a bit sinister in a serpentine way, but you really thinking about taking the action, entertaining theft as a live possibility, is a kind of wrong too.  Maybe there are incomparable attitudes to the same wrong act.  Or maybe one really is worse than the other.

Here’s a nearby question, not quite raised by Angelo, concerning morally relevant actions which require accomplices — moral philosophers usually think about individuals and a particular action, so maybe there’s some untrodden ground for us here.  It takes two to commit adultery (three if you really want to do it properly).  It takes a mob to lynch someone.  It takes quite a few people to storm the Bastille.  How should we divvy up praise and blame in such cases?  What principles should we use?

Terrorism or Not?

Andrew Joseph Stack III, apparently partially motivated by a hatred of the IRS, crashed his plane into an Austin building. This incident has been officially classified as a criminal act rather than a terrorist attack. However, some have contended that this is a case ofconservative terrorism. While this incident is a terrible one, it does raise the issue of what counts as terrorism.

From a purely cynical standpoint, it could be claimed that the label of terrorism is applied as a matter of politics. Acts are declared terrorists acts so as to gain some sort of political game piece to be played for an advantage. For example, the underwear bomber is a terrorist because this enables the Republicans to claim that a terrorist attack occurred on Obama’s watch. In this current case, neither the Republicans nor Democrats can gain a political point by calling this incident terrorism and so they do not label it as such.

However, there seems to be a matter worth discussing here that is beyond mere political rhetoric.

One plausible view of terrorism is that it is the intentional use of force on to create fear and this is done on the basis of ideological motivations. To distinguish this from standard police and military actions, it can be added that the force is aimed at civilian targets or at the very least disregards the civilian/combatant distinction. Of course, the concept is one that is rather heavily debated and, as such, this can hardly be considered a definitive and non-controversial account. However, it does seem to have intuitive appeal. This definition does seem to nicely capture paradigm cases of terrorism, such as the 9/11 attack.

Using this definition, Stack’s attack would seem to be terrorism. After all, he seems to have been clearly motivated by ideological factors (combined, of course, with various personal issues) and he used violence against civilians. The parallels to 9/11 are quite clear, even down to the use of a plane as the  weapon.

Of course, Stack’s attack has been presented as a criminal act rather than an act of terrorism. This raises the obvious question of what distinguishes Stack’s attack from a terrorist act.

One factor that might be pointed to is that Stack is an American and this makes his act a criminal act rather than a terrorist act. However, this does not seem to be enough to change the nature of the act from being an act to terror to a mere criminal act. After all, there can be internal acts of terror committed between citizens. For example, the bombings in Iraq by Iraqis are considered to be terrorist acts as were the acts of the IRA in Ireland.

Another factor is that Stack seems to have acted as an individual without any supporting group that trained or at least helped guide him towards his act. It is generally accepted that terrorism is a systematic process that requires a group or organization. Obviously there can are criminal organizations that commit violent acts to advance their goals. However, these are usually distinguished from terrorist groups by their motivations. That is, criminal groups often  create fear  to make money while terrorist groups often commit crimes to make money to fund  terrorist attacks so as to advance their ideology. Of course, the line between terrorist groups and criminal groups is often a blurry one-especially in cases involving large scale drug trafficking.

If terrorism is defined in a way that makes it a group thing, then Stack’s attack would not count as a terrorist attack. This view does have some plausibility as shown by a comparison to war.

If I organize and launch an attack against my neighbors and take over their house, then I am a criminal. If my country organizes and launches an attack against another country, then this is war and not (on the face of it) a criminal act. Perhaps terrorism works the same way. To use a metaphor, perhaps terrorism and war are team sports so that an individual cannot play those games by himself.

So, while Stack was motivated by ideological factors and used violence against civilians, the fact that he acted alone would entail that he was a criminal and not a terrorist. If he had, however, some links (however tenuous) to the right sort of group, then he could be classified as a terrorist.

As noted above, there have been some arguments that Stack was a terrorist on this basis. The general case is that he was actually part of a group with a definite ideology and hence this provides him with the necessary context for being a terrorist. The weak point in this argument is that the group that Stack is supposed to be associated with is a rather vague one, namely people who dislike the government and the IRS. Taking such tenuous group membership is taken as an adequate basis to define a person who commits violence as a terrorist seems to make the definition of “terrorist” rather broad. After all, anyone who does not dwell in complete isolation will have some sort of association with some people who have some sort of ideological views. The challenge here is, of course, to work  out what sort of relation a person would need to have to what sort of group to make that person a terrorist rather than a criminal.

It is, of course, tempting to take the view that “terrorist” is primarily a political label that is placed to serve the political ends of the person applying the label. So, for example, a person might be labeled a terrorist so that he can be interrogated with enhanced techniques, assassinated or jailed without due process.  Or someone  might declare a “war on terror” so as to use it as a political tool to reshape laws and how they are applied. A lone person who crashes a plane into a building simply doesn’t provide a useful political game piece and hence is labeled as a criminal rather than a terrorist.

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Hitchens on Sports

BEIJING - AUGUST 20:  Wilfred Kipkemboi Bungei...

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While I am a professional philosopher, I am also an amateur athlete and, as such, found Hitchens’ recent article on sports to be rather…interesting.

Hitchens does make some reasonable and valid criticisms of international sports. To be specific, he does point out that international sporting events have led to serious conflicts and some rather reprehensible behavior. However, he does not stop there. He moves on to attack sportsmanship itself by pointing out bad behavior on the part of athletes and fans. He also attacks the overuse of sports metaphors in politics, complains about the coverage afforded sports, and takes the usual shots at the overemphasis of sports in major universities.

His criticism of sports does have some merit. After all, the incidents and behavior he points to are quite real. Like him, I find the excessive coverage of sports a bit tedious and I also have been critical of how sports is often handled at the university level. However, Hitchens sweeping attack has a rather serious flaw, namely that he is engaging in a relentless straw man attack.

His specific form of a straw man is one that I point out to my students in my critical thinking class: one way to make a straw man of something is to focus entirely on the negative aspects of the target, while conveniently ignoring or underplaying the positive aspects.  To fairly assess something, such as sports, it is important to consider the positive aspects as well. After all, focusing merely on the negatives will produce a rather distorted assessment  (as would focusing only on the positive). Naturally enough, such a balanced assessment can lead to the conclusion that something is rather negative. But, at least such a conclusion would be properly justified.

This tactic is standard for Hitchens and one he routinely employs against religion.  Perhaps he honestly sees the world this way and is psychologically incapable of  presenting a fair assessment. Perhaps he merely uses this tool because it works as a persuasive device (while failing as a logical method). However, his motivations are (obviously enough) irrelevant to assessing his case.

To begin with my reply, I am obligated to say once more that I am an athlete so as to allow people to be aware of this as a possible biasing factor in my views. I competed in high shool and college and still compete today. Of course, the merit of my case has no connection to my status as an athlete-to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem fallacy.

My main contention against his case is, as noted above, that he seems to simply ignore any positive evidence in favor of sports. While my view of sports is based on my own experiences, these still count as evidence for the positive aspects of sports.

First, my own experience as an athlete has made me a better person. My coaches always emphasized fairness, good sportsmanship and character and they took all this very seriously. Through their guidance and through the lessons of competition I learned the importance of competing fairly, of maintaining integrity and showing respect to my fellow athletes.  I can honestly say that sports helped shape my moral character and much of what is best about me has come through sports.  I am not claiming to be a saint or exceptionally good. But, I do know that my experience in sports has, as Aristotlewould say, has developed my virtues.

Second, my observations of my fellow athletes has shown that most of them have also benefited from sports. With some notable exceptions, the people I have competed with and against have shown good character. To see this for yourself, go to a local road race or even a large race and observe how people behave. To use just a few examples, runners will share water with their competitors, tell people they are racing against the right way to go, and even stop to help an injured competitor.  People also volunteer to work at such races, often getting up very early and sometimes enduring rather tough conditions. This is hardly a sign of bad character or poor behavior. Yes, there are some people who are jerks (I’ve taken a few needless elbows to the chest, for example). But, what I have observed has generally been rather positive in character. Lest I be accused of presenting a small sample or a biased one, I have competed in hundreds of races ranging from the Beach to Beacon 10K to the Columbus Marathon to high school meets to college meets and so on. As such, I have a fairly broad sample to work with.

Of course, I can still  be accused of presenting a biased sample. After all, my experience has been primarily with runners and often with runners I know. Perhaps running is different from other sports in significant ways. Also, there is the obvious concern about extending my experiences from this one sport to other sports. However, even if running is unusual it does serve as counterexample against Hitchens’ attacks on sports. Also, Hitchens can also be accused of using a biased sample: he focuses only on the negative while ignoring the positive.

To finish up, I do agree that Hitchens makes some points well worth considering. Sports can lead to rather bad behavior and serious problems. However, this is not a quality that seems to be inherent to sports. Rather, it is a problem with how people react to sports and how people behave. The fact that some athletes act badly and that some fans are true fanatics who engage in violence over sports merely serves to show their failings rather than the failings of sports. As noted above, my experiences with running have been very positive and shows that sports can be something very positive. Like everything else in life, sports is largely what we make of it. Those who bring vice to sports will find it there. Those who bring virtue will find that.

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Flea Feet

This from The Clouds:

Student of Socrates:  Socrates asked Chaerephon how many of its own feet a flea could jump — one had bitten Chaerephon’s brow and then jumped to Socrates’ head.

Strepsiades:  And how did he measure the jump?

Student:  Most ingeniously.  He melted wax, caught the flea, dipped its feet, and the hardened wax made Persian slippers.  Unfastening these, he found their size.

Strepsiades:  Royal Zeus!  What an acute intellect!

I do think that Aristophanes is on to something here.  Philosophers are often drawn into their own problems, problems that bother them and no one else.  It’s always a large warning when you read a paper which spends a lot of time spelling out where the trouble is supposed to be before a brilliant solution is suggested.  If it’s THAT much of a problem, you are right to think, it would be a bit more obvious, wouldn’t it?   But so what, so what if we have peculiar interests?   That might not be a bad thing, but Aristophanes’ further dig has to do with whether or not the problems matter much at all, to anyone beyond the person with the flea in his hair.  An ingenious solution might be offered to the problem of the size of flea feet, but you don’t need to be William James to wonder about the point.  Is most philosophy like this, do you think?  A matter of measuring feet to no real end?  And if so, I’m tempted to wonder, so what? 

It pushes me again to the thought that the headlines are all wrong.  Philosophy isn’t the love of wisdom or the pursuit of truth; it’s nearer an effort to think through your own conception of things, make things clearer for yourself, render coherent your own outlook.  In stockpiling all your premises and conclusions, the only person you will ever convince is yourself.  And that’s if you’re lucky.

Corporations’ Free Speech


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The Supreme Court recently ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that corporations have the same 1st Amendment rights as individual people. As such, corporations are now legally permitted unlimited spending  on political advertisements.
This overturns a restriction set in place in 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt got congress to bar corporations, railroads and banks from using their money in federal election campaigns. This restriction was later extended to labor unions.
Corporations do, however, still chafe under two restrictions. First, they cannot directly fund candidates in federal elections. Second, they are required to identify themselves in the political advertisements they buy.
Since corporations are considered to be legal persons, this ruling does take that status to a logical conclusion. After all, if a corporation is a person and people have 1st Amendment rights, then a corporation has such rights.
However, such rights are not always guaranteed. After all, the same sort of conservatives who have supported this ruling have also argued that not all people deserve the same rights as Americans. To be specific, it has been argued that folks who are considered terrorists should not have the usual legal rights. Likewise, corporations could also be taken as not having such legal rights, even though they are taken to be persons.
This line of thought does raise an interesting point. If the logic of the ruling is taken as “If X is a person then X gets all the legal rights of a person”, then this would certainly seem to have to apply across the board. As such, terrorists should get the same legal rights as everyone else.
Obviously, it will be argued that terrorists must have their rights restricted for national security reasons and to protect America from harm. This same sort of argument can be applied to the corporations. After all, we surely do not want foreign corporations manipulating our elections nor do we want to face the potential harms that unlimited corporate spending could inflict on our democracy.
This, of course, leads nicely to a consequentialist  argument against this ruling. A central concern of the folks who oppose this ruling is that such unlimited corporate spending will do serious damage to the political process .
First, the much greater wealth of corporations will allow them to vastly outspend real people and thus grant them undue influence in the election process. Naturally, this is not just a concern about corporations but also a concern about wealthy individuals.  This does, however, assume that elections are influenced by spending. This does seem to be the case, but can be debated.
Second, this opens up new doors of corporate influence. While companies cannot directly give to candidates, they can indirectly support them by buying advertising. This provides the politicians with even more temptation to become servants of the corporate masters (not that they are not already at the corporate feeding pail). While sometimes what is good for GM is good for America, this is not always the case. Of course, the government is already strongly influenced by corporate lobbyists and it might be argued that this ruling simply removes a delusion of democracy, namely that corporations do not have vast influence over politics already.
One final point I wish to address is the matter of corporations being persons. Since they are merely a legal fiction, they are not real people. Also, it is easy enough to bring up various intuitively plausible philosophical definitions of  “person” and show how corporations do not meet these conditions. They are, of course, legally persons. But, of course, the supreme court could rule that my left testicle is a person.
Rather than contend with the notion that corporations are persons, I will grant that.  I will even grant that this entitles corporations to 1st Amendment rights. However, this status would also entail that corporations must also be treated as individuals in all other ways.
First, they must be subject to the same tax laws as individuals. For example, the whole corporation just gets  a standard deduction and must itemize for other deductions. There must be no special corporate exemptions, tax breaks or any such things that all individuals do not receive.
Second, corporations must be eligible for jury duty. Since the entire entity is the corporation, if it is called for duty then the entire person must go. After all, when I am called for duty, I have to go in my entirety.  The same must apply to corporations.
Third,  when corporations break the law, then the entire corporation must be punished. If jail time is part of the sentence, then the entire corporation must serve the time. After all, if I were sentence to jail, then I must go in my entirety.
Fourth, corporations must register for selective service and be subject to the draft in times of war. They must be treated like any other draftee (being required to go through basic training, for example).
And so on, for all other laws that apply to individuals. Oh, lest I forget-those that are American citizens do get to vote (one person, one vote), but they must meet the proper residency age, and other requirements.
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Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Thomas Aquinas was the most important Western ...

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While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable. After all, if we are truly better than them, we should act that way.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

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Dealing with abuse

What’s the right way to deal with abuse? Take the moral high ground and reply as a paragon of calm reason? Or treat people with the same disrespect they showed you? It probably depends, of course, but here’s a really striking case study, courtesy of Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre writes the Bad Science column and blog, and I’ve interviewed him for the next issue of tpm. This is a story he told which I had to leave out because of space constraints. I’m not sure whether this is brilliant, terrible, or both. What do you think?

“I once wrote something about MMR and I got this huge long hate diatribe from this guy. It was about six pages long, calling me every name under the sun, saying that I was in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry to rubbish the concerns of anti-vaccination, when, in fact, I’m probably their biggest critic in the UK at the moment, or at least their biggest non-bonkers critic. There was this huge torrent of abuse, real screaming, screeching abuse: ‘I hope that your children are deformed, and when you’re sobbing holding your vaccine-damaged child, I hope you look up at the sky and ask, Why God me? Why did you punish me for the things I said?’ Really, really vicious, horrible stuff.

“I just wrote back a very polite, three line response, saying I guess it’s unfortunate that I have to put up with this kind of anger, but if it’s any help, I say what I say because of these references and I think the evidence is pretty clear. If you’re interested in more, I can send you the book chapter – don’t buy the book, I’ll jut email it to you. Something like that.”

Goldacre then digresses to talk about how, although it can be hard to deal with abuse, it is possible to set the tone of a conversation and that “If you scream and shout, people scream and shout. If you’re polite and sensible people generally tend to respond in a polite and sensible way.” Then he picks up.

“So I wrote back this really polite, straightforward email, and he immediately replied, saying ‘God, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me. In my head, it was like you weren’t even a real person. It didn’t even occur to me that you would reply, let alone that you’d reply so straightforwardly and politely. I feel ashamed and humbled and please, all I ask is that you just accept that I wouldn’t normally speak like that and I will try to write you a much more sensible email about my worries and concerns. But I’m shocked at what I wrote to you.’

“And I replied, ‘F*** off.'”

Morality without God

Teaching ethics a number of years ago, I was told by an earnest student that there can be no morality without God. He seemed to agree implicitly with the idea that “If God does not exist, then all things are permitted.” He also believed in a visceral way that without God’s restraining hand, people would become riddled with vice, steal, kill, rape, take drugs and indulge in sinful sex. It is as if humans are just waiting to escape the leash and run amok. On this view, there is no reason whatsoever to be moral without the promise of heaven in the next life or the threat of hell fire.

I found upon asking that many of my students felt the same way. This surprised me greatly, given the attempts in recent centuries to find ways of conceiving of morality in secular terms. For example, neither Kantian ethical theory nor Utilitarianism pin notions of right and wrong to the existence of God. Kant thought he could anchor moral thinking to the notion of duty and the categorical imperative, which demands that we treat all people as ends in themselves and act upon universal prescriptive principles. However, God still had a role to play in Kant’s philosophy as chief cheerleader for the moral law within us.

Utilitarianism, which defines right and wrong in terms of maximizing pleasure and happiness, moves even further from a God-centered ethics. Instead of God pointing to the moral law and endorsing it, we have an ethics that is based purely on human nature and society. In fact, utilitarianism gives us a way to judge God’s commands. If God’s commands go against the greatest happiness principle, then we have a good reason to jettison them.

There is no doubt that some valuable moral insights have been promulgated by religion. In fact, the principle of the Golden Rule, which many of the world’s religions contain, seems to be a good place to start thinking about morality. It may have come from religion, but we can get there simply by reflecting on the ways human beings interrelate. “Treat others as you wish to be treated” or, better to my mind, “Do not treat others as you do not wish to be treated” are both admirable rules for life. We may not get to “Love your neighbor as yourself” from the Golden Rule, but we certainly get close.

Consider a thought experiment. Let us imagine that there was never a God-based moral system, no Divine Commandments, no rules of conduct springing from Supernatural Revelation. From this perspective, let us now look at the great moral debates of our age. Would they look different to us?

First, consider some of the current contentious debates, including abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, cloning, drug use, contraception, sex education and gay marriage. God’s finger actively stirs up these debates. So my question is how they would look without God’s intervention. Would they seem so intractable and cause so much heat and sometimes violence? I believe not.

Let us consider just two: euthanasia and gay marriage. Would these be such big issues if God had not pronounced against them? Yet, is God’s prohibition a good reason to ban them? With respect to the first, we are more humane with animals than with humans. The only issue with euthanasia from a Revelationless point of view is whether the person who wants to die is certain in resolve. As for gay marriage, it is even more plain that it would be a non-issue if God had not forbidden same-sex unions. It would be an interesting project to go down the list and discover if these problems could be more easily resolved without God’s input.

One problem with God is that we cannot know with absolute certainty whether God exists or not. Therefore, it is a personal choice whether or not to believe. It is a choice made on the basis of what Kant called a ‘practical postulate’ of reason. In his view, it is best to live as if God exists. However, it might be better now to act as if God does not exist and does not interfere in human morality. Perhaps our moral dilemmas would be one step closer to being solved if this were to happen.

The Departmental Meeting…

As secretary to the university’s department of philsophy it fell to me to make a record of the discussion at the most recent academic committee meeting. And what a meeting it was! The main item for discussion that day was “the matter at hand”. And this is how the meeting unfolded…

Professor Moore: “I now think it is time to turn to the matter at hand.”

An uncontroversial beginning one might have thought, but rarely are things so simple at a gathering of the philosophical “great and good”:

“I object to that!”  offered Professor Bradley, more sharply than was normal on these occasions, “there is no ‘matter’  to be ‘at hand’ if by that you intend to refer to some underlying substrate in which ‘matter’ might inhere. I might give you a ‘hand’ but there will be no accompanying ‘matter’ to place next to it. Or underneath it. Or anywhere else for that….And any ‘hand’ whose existence I am prepared to assent to would not be individuated separately but would be part of an inclusive Whole.”

My colleagues appeared restless at this. For Professor Bradley had a point: if we could not agree on the existence of matter then  it followed a fortiori  that there could be no matter at hand and that further discussion was therefore pointless. Luckily Professor Ayer, his mind no doubt on a later assignation, was keen to move things along…

Professor Ayer: “We can accept, following Berkeley, that to talk of ‘matter’ in this way is literal nonsense. There can be no discussion of the matter in hand since any proposition which includes the term ‘matter in hand’ will be neither analytic nor verifiable. We might, however, following Russell (following Hume), agree to refer instead to ‘the logical construction out of sense data at hand’. We could then proceed in a manner that preserves the requisite clarity and rigour. We can if you like (and following me) resume discussion of the matter in a hand in a way that is analogous to the discussion of other minds…” there were nods of assent at this sage proposal and it looked as if Professor Ayer might have saved the day. But then, not for the first time, he overreached himself, “…and anyway time is marching on.”

At this there was a sharp intake of breath for we all knew what was coming…

“I would ask you to retract that Sir!” thundered Professor McTaggart, “I have not spent the best part of the last decade proving that time does not exist only for you to glibly ascribe to it not merely existence but some peculiar species of causal powers! “Marching on” indeed! I did not come here only to be confronted by your obnoxious conflation of the A-series with the B-series! Were there such a thing as time you would undoubtedly be wasting mine Sir!”

At this the idealists sided with McTaggart against the empiricists whom they accused of attempting to hijack the agenda of the meeting. The rationalists took the side of the idealists whilst the contrarians took the side of nobody. At one point Professor Wittgenstein demanded that everyone be quiet. And, as head of department, Profeesor Moore appealed in vain for common sense to prevail. It fell to the department’s token Kantian, Professor Strawson, to effect an uneasy truce between these disparate camps.

Discussion of the matter at hand was eventually deferred until the next meeting of the academic committee where it appears on the agenda as Item 3: “the logical-construction-from-sense-data-at-hand-in-a-way-that-is-metaphysically-and-ontologically-neutral”.

Trying Terrorists

Frederick Dielman (1847-1935) designed this mo...

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The proposal to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York City for trial created considerable controversy. While some of it was manufactured for political purposes, there are significant issues here.

First, there is the practical issue: bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the city for trial will cost millions of dollars. Interestingly, some folks have expressed a willingness to hold the trial in their town so as to bring that money into their community. In any case, holding the trial on a military facility would presumably be cheaper-the security is presumably already in place.

Second, there is the concern that NYC will be targeted again if the trial is held there. Of course, this concern applies to anyplace the trial is located and, of course, NYC is presumably already a prime target for terrorists (that is, after all, where the 9/11 attacks took place). Also, to use some Bush era talk: if we do not hold the trial in NYC because we are afraid, then the terrorist win by turning us into cowards in the face of their threats.

Third, there is the moral and political statement of holding a civilian trial. It shows that we are committed to the rule of law, justice and due process. In contrast, our terrorist foes are outside of the limits of civilization, law and justice. In a very important sense, our battle against the various terrorist groups is a struggle between our values and their values. You do not win a moral battle over values by abandoning those values-anymore than you defend a city by abandoning that city to the enemy.

Fourth, holding a civilian trial casts the terrorist as a criminal and not a combatant. In a sense, a combatant is a fighter in a war and treating him as such would seem to grant him a certain status. Treating him as the criminal he is makes a statement about the nature of terrorism and terrorists: they are not enemy combatants fighting a war. They are mere criminals engaged in the murder of the innocent.

Fifth, it has been contended that trying a terrorist rather than just executing them entourages terrorists by showing that we are weak. In reply, the same argument could apply to any criminal and thus would justify getting rid of the notion of holding trials at all. This seems rather absurd, so the argument should be rejected. As another reply, it is the terrorists who are weak. After all, if we can hold such trials, this shows that we are so strong that we can offer justice even to our worst enemies. Executing people without trials and without justice is the way of the terrorist, not the way of the just.

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