Monthly Archives: October 2010

That Horrible Crowd!


The hinterland of Fantasy stretches wide, giving the reader ample playground to roam and discover the richness of its territory. But no matter how fantastic a story gets, the fantasy reader will always encounter themes that are oddly familiar. When a character in the classic horror novel “The Shining” goes on a violent rampage after drinking too much alcohol, the reader gets a pretty lesson about the villainy of alcoholism. When you learn that the classic film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was written during the Cold War, it takes little imagination to picture collectivistic Soviets prancing down the main street of Des Moines.

Literary fantasy can’t help but affect the ways that we paint the human picture. And when we look for lessons on the human predicament in literature, we find that the two worlds — of fantasy and reality — are actually not very far apart. Graham Swift had it right when (in the novel “Waterland”) his protagonist defined “man” as a story-telling animal. The philosopher Donald Davidson got it right when he insisted that any successful communication presupposes that we already share a wide swath of shared facts. Reality soaks into narratives because intelligibility presupposes familiarity. The utterly strange, the completely alien, is not a part of a story. It is the unmaking of stories.

I am most interested in the crossroads where fantasy and reality meet. We can call this crossroads Philosophy: for philosophy has always concerned itself with the reality behind things, and (like the best literary critics) goes about explaining that reality using logic and reasoned argument. In this post I’m going to focus on the genre vaguely known as ‘dark fantasy’, where supernatural happenings occur, sometimes sexual, sometimes grotesque, and always always strange. It is fitting, then, that we should spend time to talk about the weirdest kind of people: strangers in a crowd.


Many cultures, especially Anglo-American ones, appreciate the value of personal space. People in an elevator will try to stand as far apart from each other as they can. When given a chance, men using a restroom will pick the urinal on the far side and never the one in the middle. If you make eye contact with other adults in a crowd while waiting for the bus, you should expect to receive an embarrassed look, a quick glance in the other direction, and a bit of shoe-gazing.

In these cultures, most people learn to avoid eye contact as they grow older. As children, we’re told over and over that we should resist contact with strangers: by our parents, by our teachers, and by creepy public service announcements in between our Saturday morning cartoons. The distrust of others is trained into us for our own protection.

Ignoring the risk of ethnocentrism, Elias Canetti thinks that we have an irresistible impulse to be afraid of strangers. From Crowds and Power: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown… Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can amount to panic… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear. They shut themselves in houses which no one may enter, and only there feel some measure of security…” So, if Canetti is right, then people fear being touched by strangers because they fear the force of the unknown. Strangers are unknowns, and that is why we avoid them.

Immanuel Kant agrees that we ought to fear the unknown. “[Knowledge] is the island of truth, surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner on his voyage of discovery to be a new country… But before venturing upon this sea… it will not be without advantage to cast our eyes upon the chart of the land that we are about to leave, and to ask ourselves, firstly, whether we cannot rest perfectly contented with it”. The imagery he uses in the passage is suggestive – the unknown is a vast space that is full of icebergs that we might crash into. (Granted, it’s hard to imagine a stoic figure like Kant being really afraid of anything — in a contest, one imagines that the icebergs would be afraid of him. Still.)

On first blush, it seems that our lesson from Canetti and Kant is to be unnerved by the unknown. But that would be the wrong conclusion to draw. After all, people engage in crowding all the time, at any rock concert or soccer game: they participate, they cheer, they bump into each other and give noogies and rub shoulders and all the rest of it. In the context of public events, strangers become familiars. The terror of the crowd turns into a feeling of the sublime.

So there is an intimacy to crowding that, from a distance, is treated with hostility and terror; but from close-up, as comfort. Perhaps the transformation between terror and the sublime is most explicitly expressed by the grim short story, “Man of the Crowd”, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, the reader is confronted with the character of a vacant old man. This man is driven to be in the presence of crowds at all times, who suffers when alone, and constantly roams the London streets, trying to find the companionship of the thrall. Leave it to Poe to have written a dark fantasy about every possible thing we might ever be afraid of.

But why does this happen? Canetti explains: “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite… The reversal of fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest” (15-16). Hence, it is not just that people start to trust each other through familiarity: they are there to achieve a common purpose, a common elation, which Canetti calls “the discharge”. The bigger the crowd, the more “striking” the discharge.

Hence, some crowds tend to desire expansion, like a virus infecting a population. This kind of crowd, the open crowd, “wants to seize everyone within reach… it does not recognize houses, doors or locks and those who shut themselves in are suspect…” (17) If we are to put accent on these passages, then it sounds as though Canetti would want us to think of crowds as being like The Blob, rolling across the urban landscape, absorbing hapless citizens along the way.



We can have a lot of fun disassembling Canetti’s attitude. As mentioned from the outset, Canetti’s work seems like it’s powered by a combination of ethnocentrism and anti-populism. Canetti’s argument also appears to be a product of its times. Contemporary writers like James Surowiecki (author of The Wisdom of Crowds) have come to the defence of crowds by arguing that aggregate opinion is statistically much more reliable than the lone voice. Surowiecki uses the term “crowd” in an idiosyncratic way, to describe the decisions of a population of individuals deciding independently.

First thing’s first: if we think that Canetti was trying to explain to us how the nastiness of crowds is an important part of the human picture, then we’d pretty much have to say that he was wrong. The image of a horrible crowd as being zombie-like, of being like The Blob, is unique to certain neurotic Anglo-American populations. We have no reason to think that it is part of the human condition. But once you put aside some of his more illustrative quotes, and look at how his account actually works, you find that Canetti’s account of social crowding is not horrified by all crowds at all. Strictly speaking, his account is just as consistent with banal and ordinary social interactions of groups — flash mobs (“quick crowds”), religious sermons (“slow crowds”), union strikes (“prohibition crowds”), bureaucratic institutions (the “closed crowd”), and parades (the “open crowd”). So, putting aside some of his darkly fantastic rhetoric, it really might tell us something interesting about the human picture.

Second, on the subject of ethnocentrism: there’s no denying that Canetti, the author of Auto-Da-Fé, had anti-populism on his mind. You can think of him as ethnocentric in the sense that he was a product of his times. But this wasn’t a fault that you can attribute to his overall outlook, since people with a different point of view were also ethnocentric. Consider the musings of the horror writer HP Lovecraft: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” This is a nice passage, because it perverts Kantian language to deliver an opposite sentiment: the unknown is comforting, and to be preferred over horrible truths. I think a case could be made that Lovecraft had an opposite opinion on crowds, as well. In the Lovecraftian stories, the worst of all evils (from the deep! Cthulhu! Etc!) show up in the remote bumpkin towns and islands upon the distant horizon, far away from the throngs of citizens in urban areas. Lovecraft was scared of everything except what he thought of as civilization: sociable white men of letters. Back full circle: Lovecraft’s attitude was informed by Anglo-American ethnocentrism.


Going by Surowiecki’s definition of “crowds”, then, Lovecraft must love certain kinds of crowds: the kinds that populate Miskatonic University. If we can see ethnocentrism occupying both sides of the case, then that indicates that we ought to blame the times these authors were writing in. Both authors were haunted by the darkest fantasies that their eras could provide, but I think they force us to go in different directions.

Adapted from an essay originally published on Butterflies and Wheels, with gratitude to Ophelia Benson.

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Since it is Halloween I am keeping up my tradition of writing about spooky stuff from a philosophical perspective. This year I am taking a look at possession.

Possession is a common theme in myth, fiction and religion. The general idea is that possession occurs when one mind displaces another for control of a body. Alternatively, possession can occur when a mind takes over a body that is unoccupied (a corpse, for example) or a body that never had a mind of its own (a vehicle, for example).

The most traditional form of possession is supernatural in character: a spirit, muse, god, demon, ghost, witch or other supernatural entity takes control of a body. In most cases this is supposed to be for evil purposes, such as when a demon possesses a victim. In other cases the possession is benign or even beneficial, such as Plato’s view that poets are possessed when they produced their poetical works.

From a philosophical perspective, this sort of possession is possible (but suspect). After all, it simply requires that metaphysical mental entities exist and that they can assume control over physical bodies. The famous Cartesian mind could, presumably, do such a thing. The immaterial mind supposedly controls its original body and could be supplanted by another mind. John Locke also explicitly discusses a case of possession in his example of the spirit and consciousness of a prince entering the body of a cobbler and taking over.

In addition to human (or animal) bodies being possessed by supernatural entities, there are also stories of physical objects such as statues and cars (most famously Christine) being possessed by supernatural entities. While these cases seem more odd than those of living (or dead) bodies being possessed, perhaps there is no more mystery in a non-material mind controlling a car than there is in one controlling a body. After all, once you accept that the ghost can drive the machine, it would not seem to matter whether this is a human body or a car.

Of course, immaterial minds are rather suspect in philosophy these days and demons, gods and such are regarded with (at best) little love. However, this sort of possession is not beyond the realm of philosophy as the above examples show.

Interestingly enough, there are also cases of material being (or at least non-supernatural being) taking possession of bodies. For example, Sturgeon’s classic story “Killdozer” features a bulldozer that is possessed by an energy being (not an alien-it is from earth) that can directly control machines. As another example, Heinlein’s puppet masters can control their victims by bypassing their brains and directly controlling their bodies (another example of this sort would be the Goa’uld of Stargate fame). As a third example, a nervous system from one being could be implanted in another (the classic brain transplant) and this would, technically speaking, be a form of possession. While these examples are from science fiction, they do make sense. After all, there are organisms on earth ( such as the infamous ant controlling fungus) that can take control of a victim. Also, brain transplants are at least theoretically possible since they are mainly a matter of perfecting surgical techniques.  All of these types of possession are perfectly compatible with physicalism and hence do not require any odd metaphysics. Just odd critters or odd science.

One final type of possession I will consider is “functionalism” possession.  Functionalism is the theory that mental states are defined in functional terms. Roughly put, a functional definition of a mental state defines that mental state in terms of its role or function in a mental system of inputs and outputs. To be a bit more specific, a mental state, such as being in pain,  is defined in terms of the causal relations that it holds to external influences on the body, other mental states, and the behavior of the body. A mind, then, would be a set of functions.

Presumably it would be at least possible for one set of functions to overwrite or overwhelm another set. To use an analogy, possession of this sort might be like installing a new (or another) operating system onto a computer. There are examples of this in science fiction, perhaps the best known being when the Agent took over one of the humans in the Matrix trilogy. Other science fiction examples include writing memories onto cloned bodies or reprogramming a person. Of course, there cases do leave open the question of whether the body is actually being possessed by a new mind or if the contents of the mind have merely been altered. Put another way, this would be a question of whether a new person is in charge of the body now or whether the person was merely changed.

In any case, Happy Halloween.

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Firesheep & Evil

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In America there is a saying “guns don’t kill people.” Some wits add “people with  guns kill people.” While this saying is just that, a saying, it does put a handy slogan on a view about moral responsibility. On the face of it, the sayings are dead on: while a gun can be used to kill a person, guns are not themselves moral agents. As such, a gun bears no moral responsibility for any deaths that it might be used to bring about.

The gun debate has been done to death in America, so I thought it would be interesting to switch the focus a bit while still sticking with the general issue of responsibility for harm. To be specific, I will be looking at a hacking program called Firesheep (not to be confused with the browser Firefox or the emulator Sheepshaver).

Firesheep was written by Eric Butler and adds easy to use hacking functions to the Firefox web browser. The add on lets users view information in internet cookies at sites such as Twitter, Facebook. Flickr, Tumblr and Yelp.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view of the matter) Firesheep is limited in what it can do. It can allow a user to get usernames and session number IDs but it cannot be used to get passwords. In effect, it allows users to view information (such as person’s Facebook or Amazon account) but does not let users do anything that would require a password. It is also limited to hacking on the same network. However, this means that if you are reading this blog on a public wi-fi, then someone with Firesheep could be reading through your darkest Facebook secrets. Like that time you…well, you know what you did. And so does that creepy fellow sitting two tables down.

Butler makes it clear that he sees himself as a white hat: he is hacking to expose vulnerabilities so that they will be fixed.  Interestingly, he does directly address the moral issue at hand:  “The attack that Firesheep demonstrates is easy to do using tools that have been available for years. Criminals already knew this, and I reject the notion that something like Firesheep turns otherwise innocent people evil.”

On the face of it, Butler is quite right. Firesheep, like other tools, is not some sort of cursed weapon that can possess the mind of potential victims and compel them to do evil (unlike television which does just that). The same is, obviously enough, true of other potential harmful pieces of technology, such as guns and junk food. As such, Butler and the other folks who make such tools available are not directly accountable for what people do with the tools. As the arms dealers probably say, “I just provide the weapons, the customer does the actual killing.” I do not, however, mean to suggest that Butler had any malign intent in creating and releasing Firesheep. Rather, he seems to be like Dr. Gatling-hoping that his creation will do good rather than further evil.

There is, however, a somewhat deeper concern. Namely that providing the tools that makes misdeeds easier makes a person accountable to a degree. While the person who invents or distributes such tools or weapons does not make people evil or make them do misdeeds, the person does make such misdeeds easier. As such, the person providing the tool does play a causal role in the misdeeds-especially if the tool or weapon serves as a “but for” cause. For example, if someone would have been unable to track down and start stalking an ex without using Firesheep, the ex would have not been stalked but for Firesheep. As such, making misdeeds easier does seem to bring with it a degree of moral accountability.

Butler does. of course, anticipate this sort of criticism. As he notes, the tools already exist to do just what Firesheep does. Firesheep is just better known and easier to use. To use an analogy, Butler is not inventing the gun. He is merely making the gun easier to use.

Other folks, myself included, are helping make Firesheep famous. Following the above logic, this would also make me and the others folks contributors in some cases. For example, if somebody (not you, of course) reads this post, learns of Firesheep and then hacks an ex’s Facebook account to find and stalk the ex, then I have contributed to that misdeed. Of course, my contribution is extremely limited and hence so is my moral accountability.

“Firesheep doesn’t hack. People hack with Firesheep.”


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Most Anti-Abortion Christians Should Be Anti-Abortion

A bit of a provocative title, I guess, but it’s true – well, sort of, at any rate. I’ve been analysing some of the data about attitudes towards abortion which my Whose Body Is It Anyway? interactive activity is throwing up. (If you haven’t already completed the activity, I suggest you do so before reading the rest of this – what follows will make a lot more sense that way). It shows that 75% of the roughly 3,500 Christians who self-identify as being anti-abortion have beliefs about what it is that gives human life value, about what attributes have to be in place for a human being to have the right to life, about whether the rights of a foetus trump other sorts of rights, etc., that make their anti-abortion stance internally consistent and in that sense (and that sense only) rationally justified.

It is also throwing up some other interesting results. (Sorry if you’ve already seen this stuff).

1. Men are more likely to support abortion rights than women (72% to 66%). This is true even if one factors religion out of the equation, though the gap closes (84% to 81%).

2. If one factors religion out of the equation, and looks only at men and women in the United States, then the gap disappears (85% of women and 84% of men support abortion rights). So it seems that men who don’t live in the USA, and who have no religion, are quite a lot more likely than their female counterparts to support abortion rights (which is a little unexpected).

3. Perhaps not surprisingly, religious belief is by far the most important predictor of whether a person is going to be opposed to abortion. 17% of people with no religion are opposed, compared to 63% of Christians (for example). What’s quite interesting is that Muslims are less likely to be opposed to abortion than Christians (57% to 63%).

I should point out that these results are not from a representative sample of the world’s population(!). Nevertheless, Whose Body Is It Anyway? has been completed by more than 15,000 people, and they have come in from many different sorts of web sites (e.g., Facebook, StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit, etc.), so we’re not just talking here about the attitudes of a load of people who hang out on philosophy blogs.

Is Sexual Orientation Like Alcoholism?

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Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck opened a can of worms during a recent political debate:

GREGORY: Do you believe that being gay is a choice?

BUCK: I do.

GREGORY: Based on what?

BUCK: Based on what? I guess you can choose who your partner is.

GREGORY: You don’t think it’s something that’s determined at birth?

BUCK: I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically, you have a choice.

Not surprisingly, Buck has been subject to harsh criticism for his claim. Some folks are critical because he considered that sexual orientation might involve a factor other than choice. Others are critical because he compared being gay to alcoholism and alcoholism is considered a disease, something negative and also something that can (and should be) treated. While Buck might not have intended to do so, his remark does raise some interesting philosophical matters.

Interestingly enough, I do agree with Buck to a degree. As Buck does point out, it certainly seems reasonable to think that a person has choice in selecting his or her partner (or partners for folks who swing that way). That sort of behavior does seem to be a matter of choice. Buck also makes the point that he thinks that birth has an influence on sexual orientation. This is certainly compatible with a person choosing his/her partner. This would, obviously enough, also apply to straight people as well. So, while I was (presumably) born straight, my actual chosen behavior and choice of partners is still a matter of choice.  For example, I might have a preference for tall women with black hair, but might chose a shorter woman with brown hair as a matter of choice. Likewise, a person might be inclined towards men, but elect to partner with a woman.

Of course, Buck was not pilloried for claiming that people are influenced by factors but still have a large degree of choice. He was attacked because of the comparison to alcoholism. This comparison is actually well worth considering.

I do not think that homosexuality is like alcoholism in regards to the negative aspects. I do not think that homosexuality is an impairing  disease that should be cured. However, the comparison is worth considering in other ways.

The classic view of alcoholism and addiction was that people chose their behavior and that they had failed morally because of the poor choices. The current view that is in vogue, at least in the United States, is that addiction is not a matter of choice. In one sense this is right: a person cannot consciously chose to enter or leave a state of addiction like clicking a button. But what is most interesting is that a complex set of behavior (acquiring and using alcohol) is sometimes taken as not being a matter of choice on the part of the alcoholic.

This could, of course, be the case. After all, the notion of determinism (in its various forms) is well established in philosophy. If determinism is correct then alcoholism would not be a matter of choice. Nor would homosexuality. Nor would comparing homosexuals to alcoholics. This would be because nothing would be a matter of choice. In this case, saying that alcoholism or homosexuality is not a matter of choice would not be particularly interesting since nothing would be a matter of choice.

However, not all forms of determinism are total in their scope. That is, there are views in which certain things are (or could be) a matter of choice (whatever that might mean) and other things that are not. Perhaps alcoholism is one thing that is not a matter of choice. This might mean that alcoholics have no choice at all or it might merely mean that certain people are born with an inclination towards alcoholism that they did not select. This would, perhaps, leave the actualization of the potential alcoholism to choice. Perhaps sexual orientation is the same way: people are born with various inclinations that serve to map out their potential sexuality. Then their choices and the events of life serve to actualize those potentials, making people what they are based on who they do (to misuse Aristotle horribly).

While there is excellent evidence that we are at least influenced by “innate” factors (such as genetics), it also seems that we have a range of agency. Then again, perhaps we do not. In any case, the question of the extent of our agency (our capacity for choice) is a matter of great importance, be it in regards to alcoholism, sexual orientation, or anything else.

So, did you chose your sexual orientation? Your partner? How much you drink? How much you drink with your partner?

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The Obsession

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While it might be an exaggeration to say that some story involving the matter of homosexuality appears in the American news everyday, it certainly seems to be a popular theme. The usual pattern is that someone will make a remark that is offensive to homosexuals and this will open the floodgates for responses and commentary. Obviously, I am guilty of being caught up in the flood. Mainly I am curious about what seems to be an obsession with the subject.

The easy and obvious answer is that being critical of homosexuality is an easy way for politicians on the right to establish their conservative bona fides. Of course, this sometimes takes a problematic turn for some allegedly anti-gay folks when there is an unfortunate boner find.  On the left, leaping to criticize such remarks is an easy way to polish those liberal bona fides. As such, people obsess about this matter because it is an easy way to score…political points, that is.

Another obvious reason is that it is not uncommon for religious folk to regard homosexuality as  sin, hence the grounds for concern. However, religious texts like the bible are chock full of sins that people are not very concerned about (such as usury and eating unclean foods). As such, the religious answer only pushes the question back since it is sensible to ask why religious folk are often so very concerned about homosexuality. After all, it is not even in the top ten list of what to do/not do (unless one is engaging in adultery).

The easy and not very helpful answer is that people are very interested in sex in general and hence they would be very interested in and critical of homosexuality. Perhaps this arises from curiosity that transforms to guilt and then anger (“I wonder what that would be like…gosh, I feel wicked for thinking that…damn fags!”) in some cases. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence in one’s own sexuality. Or perhaps it is simply a classic case of certain people being afraid of what is different from what they do.

Some people do claim that they are concerned because it is an important moral issue: either it is a wicked thing that must be fought to protect God, Country and The Children or it is a matter of freedom that must be allowed in a free society. Now, if homosexuality is an evil, it hardly seems to be the greatest of evils and it would seem that moral crusaders could better spend their energy addressing matters for more dire and damaging. The other side does seem to have a better case given how homosexuals are often treated and what they are often denied, namely equality.

In my own case, I regard homosexuality as morally neutral: neither good, nor bad. I do believe that people should be free to chose their sexual partners within the limits of informed consent. This requires that those involved be capable of understanding the matter and that they are free from coercion and compulsion. This nicely handles the stock claims that tolerating homosexuality means tolerating bestiality, pedophilia, rape and so on. Obviously enough, animals and children cannot give informed consent. In the case of rape there is, by definition, no consent. Hence, the slippery slope does not even get sliding here.

At this point someone will no doubt be thinking about necrophilia. No, not about committing it but about the claim that tolerating homosexuality entails tolerating necrophilia. The easy way out of this “criticism” is that tolerating homosexuality between consenting parties no more entails tolerating necrophilia than does tolerating people of different faiths or nationalities getting married. At the very least, the burden of proof lies on those who would make such a claim. Also, a corpse cannot give consent.

Naturally, it might be replied that sex toys cannot give consent either, but it would seem acceptable for people to have sex with them. After all, they are just objects so consent does not enter into the matter. So, one might argue, if we are tolerant about homosexuality, then we must tolerate necrophilia since corpses would be functioning as sexual objects. The obvious problem with this argument is that it would not be that tolerance of homosexuality entails tolerance of necrophilia. Rather, it is that tolerance of sex toys would somehow entail tolerance of necrophilia, which certainly does not seem to follow. After all, there is an important moral distinction between a dead person and a mere object.

I’ll close with a question: how concerned should people be about homosexuality?

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Is Murder Sometimes Justified?

Many of you will have heard of the ‘plank of Carneades’ thought experiment, which asks us to imagine two shipwrecked sailors, who both see a plank that can only support one of them. Sailor A gets there first, but he’s pushed off by Sailor B, who then paddles away, leaving Sailor A to drown. The issue then is whether or not Sailor B can plead self-defence if he’s tried for murder.

Fewer of you will know that something like this happened in real-life, and that it became a fairly celebrated part of English case law.

And hardly any of you will know that I’ve developed a new interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments, which uses a couple of real-life scenarios to look at whether it can ever be morally justified for someone to end another person’s life (assuming that they are not under direct physical threat, that the other person hasn’t consented to being killed, etc).

In the Face of Death

Try it out now. Let me know what you think. Tell your friends. And generally spread the word. Please. Thanks.

Beyond the Influence: Alcoholism, Free Will and Compatibilism

Determinism is the view that any event is the consequence of laws of nature acting on antecedent circumstances. Given any set of circumstances (A) and the laws of nature (L) then (on the assumption that the laws of nature are -in this universe at least- inviolable) then A plus L will inevitably lead to their consequent B. It goes without saying that A will itself be the consequence of a set of antecedent circumstances in conjunction with L. Determinism has been taken by many philosophers to be incompatible with free will on the grounds that our actions are the product of “choices” both of which are part of the natural world and are therefore subject to L. Choices are also “events” and are therefore the inevitable consequence of some set of antecedent circumstances acted upon by L; as are the expression of those choices in action. Determinism may or may not be true but if it is true then there is no room (so the incompatibilist argues) for free will. Free will is an illusion: occasionally comforting, occasionally not.Compatibilists on the other hand argue that if we allow that our choices are uncaused (call this indeterminism) then this makes them random and therefore not choices at all: the very concept of free will seems inimical to randomness. There must, therefore, be an account of free will that rescues it from determinism. Other philosophers (most notably Peter van Inwagen) have suggested that it might instead be the case that the concept of free will is incoherent since it seems inconsistent with all logically available positions regarding the truth or otherwise of determinism. At best free will is mysterious on this view.

I was reminded of all this whilst reading Beyond the Influence, an analysis of the science and sociology of alcoholism co-authored by Katherine Ketcham and William Asbury. Beyond the Influence sets out a persuasive and robust defence of the claim that alcoholism is a disease of a straightforwardly biological kind, rather than a pathological consequence of a behavioural or psychological chain (of choices). The alcoholic, they argue, has a cellular genetic inheritance that makes her interaction with alcohol qualitatively distinct from the interactions that occur within a “normal” drinker: “alcoholism is a true medical disease rooted in abnormalities in brain chemistry -biomechanical aberrations that are inherited by the great majority of alcoholics…when the alcoholic drinks something different happens” (p4).

The science is set out impressively and I see no reason to dispute the authors’ central claims that (a) alcoholism is a disease and that (b) that disease has a genetic component that amounts to more than predisposition. However they then move on to assert a collection of conclusions that can be collectively stated as: the claim that the alcoholic has any freedom of choice over his drinking relies on a distortion of the concept of freedom; the biological underpinning of the disease of alcoholism disallows the application of the concept of freedom in this case. The authors proceed to make a number of laudable claims on this basis: that alcoholism should be treated as a disease rather than as a psychological condition susceptible to fashionable therapies; that the alcoholic is a victim rather than the author of her own circumstances; that the idea that alcoholic “abuse” is a version of self-harm is misconceived; that the concentration on the behavioural over the disease description of alcoholism is in part driven by the interests of the alcohol industry. And more.

I wondered though, as I read it, whether the authors had made assumptions of the sort alluded to above. Is the contrast here really between a biological/genetic (ie determinist) versus a behavioural (free choice) analysis of the condition?  And if so is it not a false one? I know that in my own case, prior to recovery, the taking of alcohol was presenting not as desire, or even as need, but as compulsion. But I felt at the same time that the decision was nevertheless genuinely cognitive and freely taken. And that the shame that the decision to drink occasioned was not neutralised by the belief that the condition overall is a matter of biology and genetics.

Ironically enough (and as an aside) there is a discussion of compatibilism in Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosopher’s guide to wine in which (having dismissed the idea that intoxication is a natural kind and is therefore an appropriate subject not just for science, but for philosophy as well) he introduces an aesthetic of wine which serves to underpin his Kantian sympathies. The paradox of the human condition, he suggests, is that we are at one and the same time objects in a world of other objects (and governed by the same physical laws as those objects) and freely choosing subjects with a perspective on that world of objects (from which it follows that we are apart from that world of objects). Freedom, again, is mysterious on this view and to set up free will in competition with determinism is misconceived.

Beyond the Influence is published by Bantam Books (2000); I Drink Therefore I Am is published by Continuum (2009).


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While I was driving home from work today, the DJ on the radio mentioned the reality show about polygamy. Since I needed a blog topic, this was clearly a sign from God.

While polygamy is illegal many places, there is still the question of whether it is morally acceptable or not. While I am not a scholar of the ethics of polygamy, the main arguments against the practice on moral grounds tend to be aimed not at polygamy itself. Rather, the main moral arguments seem to be against various ills that are often associated with polygamy, such as the oppression of women.

However, it is important to distinguish between the ethics of polygamy itself (that is, having multiples spouses) and the ethics of specific manifestations of polygamy (such as cases involving underage brides or when the spouses are ignorant of the polygamy).

I am, obviously enough, morally opposed to forced marriages and marriages involving those who are most likely incapable of informed consent (that is, underage brides). It is easy enough to argue that it is wrong to force people to marry or to get “consent” from people who are actually not capable of providing true, informed consent.  I am also, obviously enough, opposed to “secret” polygamy-cases in which a person marries multiple people who are unaware of the polygamy. However, the challenging part is to argue about polygamy itself.

One stock and obvious approach is to argue that polygamy is a form of cheating and hence inherits its immorality from this immoral act. However, polygamy seems to be different from the usual sorts of cheating. First, there is no deception since the spouses are all aware of each other. Second, the spouses are not straying outside the relationship since they are all in the relationship. As such, there is no breach of agreement or violation of relationship rights. It also would not seem to be adultery, since no one is having sex with someone s/he is not married to. As such, polygamy does not seem to be cheating.

Of course, it can be argued that polygamy is wrong because a person is morally entitled to only one spouse at a time. However, that is the question at hand. To conclude that polygamy is immoral because people are morally limited to one spouse seems to beg the question. What must be shown, obviously enough, is that the moral limit is one spouse per person. This could be done by arguing that this is inherently the case or perhaps it could be done by arguing that the consequences of polygamy will always be bad enough to outweigh the good (that, for example, a spouse or spouses will be ignored or exploited). Or perhaps some other means of argumentation can be employed.

So, the challenge is this: come up with an argument for the claim that a person is morally limited to one spouse. Religious arguments, of course, need to be converted to moral arguments.

Bonus points if you can prove that the moral limit is zero spouses.

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Funerals, Freedom, and God Hates Fags

The Westboro Baptist Church picketing at the m...

Fred Phelps, best known for “protesting” at military funerals by alleging that God is killing soldiers because He “hates fags”, is involved in a case that will be heard by the United States supreme court. A few years ago, Albert Snyder sued Phelp’s church for its “protest” at his son’s funeral and won a $5 million settlement. This verdict was recently reversed on the grounds of the First Amendment. While the legal issue will be hashed out by the supreme court, the ethics of the situation are philosophically interesting.

As I have argued in other blogs, it seems reasonable to accept that people have the right to freedom of expression. While I am not a committed utilitarian, I think that Mill makes an excellent case for this freedom in his work on liberty. Allowing free expression certainly does seem to consistently create more good than harm, and this seems to justify accepting it as a general moral guide (with some notable exceptions).

Of course, it also seems reasonable to accept that people have a right to privacy. This includes not just a right to not be infringed upon by the state, but also the right to not be intruded on by other private individuals. As with the right of expression, this right can be argued for on utilitarian grounds. It can also be argued on other grounds, but I will not go into such arguments.

The case involving Phelps is a case in which these two freedoms or rights clash. The general moral problem here involves sorting out which right or freedom trumps the other and the specific problem is whether or not  the right of free expression of the “protesters” outweighs the right to privacy of the people involved with the funerals.

My initial thought, prior to deep reflection, is that the “protesters” do have the right to engage in their activity, provided that they remain on public ground and do not actually interfere with the funeral by disrupting the event itself. However, my initial thought is that they should not be doing such a thing, because it is cruel and insulting. As such, I think people should have a right to say mean and hateful things but that they should not exercise that right.

Upon reflection, I found that I came to the same results.  As part of the process I considered the various grounds on which a person’s freedom of expression can be justly limited. While this is rather oversimplified,  the general principle  is based on the principle of harm: unless the expression can be shown to create a significant and unwarranted harm, then the expression should be allowed. This is what justifies denying people the right to shout “fire” in crowded theaters and the right to engage in slander.

Of course, it could be argued that Phelps and his cohorts are actually causing emotional harm and this justifies silencing them. I can imagine what it would be like trying to bury a son, daughter or parent while hate filled people are screeching such horrible things. I would be outraged at their insensitivity and appalled at the wickedness in their souls. I would be deeply hurt that my loved one was laid to rest to the sounds of foul mouthed vultures cursing and carrying on in their mad rage. I would want them to fall silent and leave, preferably after being tased.

However, considering the matter in the light of calm reason, I must argue that we have no right to silence these “protesters.” The fact their words and actions offend, even deeply and profoundly, is not adequate grounds for silencing them. After all, adopting the principle that people have no right to expression that others find offensive would restrict the freedom of expression in a very harmful way. To use but one example, some people find the idea that women are entitled to equal rights to be deeply offensive to their religious values. However, it would not be right to restrict people from saying such things. Roughly put, we have no right to not be offended.

That said, I still hold that although they have the right to express such ideas, they should not do so. Doing such things at a funeral is disrespectful and insulting to the dead and those who care about them. It is, to say the least, a wicked action. But, it is also one that should be tolerated.

Of course, this does not mean that there should not be restrictions placed on such “protests.” After all, those at the funeral have a right to not have their somber moment sullied by such “protests.” As a practical matter, they should be required to be out of sight and sound of the funeral ceremony. This does not interfere with their right to express their ideas-after all, they do not actually need to disrupt the funeral in order to express their views. After all, we have no right to needlessly annoy people.

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