Monthly Archives: September 2015

Obligations to Refugees

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.


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Muslims, Bigotry & History

English: John F. Kennedy, former President of ...

In the September of 2015 Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson took some heat for his remarks regarding Muslims. His fellow candidate, Donald Trump, has also faced some criticism for his persistence in feeding the suspicions that President Obama is a secret Muslim. Some of the fine folks at Fox and other conservative pundits have an established history of what some critics regard as anti-Muslim bigotry.

As might be suspected, those accused of such bigotry respond with claims that they are not bigots—they are merely telling the truth about Islam. Ben Carson echoed a common anti-Muslim claim when he asserted that a Muslim should not be President because “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution.” There are also the stock claims that nearly all Muslims wish to impose Sharia law on America, that Islam (unlike any other faith) cannot become a part of American society, and that taqiyya allows Muslims a license to lie to achieve their (nefarious) goals. The assertion about taqiyya is especially useful—any attempt by Muslims to refute these accusations can be dismissed as falling under taqiyya.

It is not always clear if the bigotry expressed against Muslims is “honest” bigotry (that is, the person really believes what he says) or if it is an attempt at political manipulation. While “honest” bigotry is bad enough, feeding the fires of hatred for political gain is perhaps even worse. This sort of bigotry in politics is, obviously, nothing new. In fact, there is a historical cycle of bigotry.

Though I am not a Mormon, in 2011 I wrote a defense of Mitt Romney and Mormonism against accusations that Mormonism is a cult. I have also written in defense of the claim that Mormonism is a form of Christianity. While the religious bigotry against Romney was not very broad in scope, it was present and is similar to the bigotry in play against Muslims today.

Perhaps the best known previous example of bigotry against a religion in America is the anti-Catholicism that was rampant before Kennedy became President. Interestingly, the accusations against American Catholics are mirrored in some of the current accusations against American Muslims—that a Catholic politician would be controlled by an outside religious power, that a Catholic politician would impose his religious rules on America and so on. As is now evident, these accusations proved baseless and now Catholics are accepted as “real” Americans, fit for holding public office. In fact, a significant percentage of Congress is Catholic. Given that the accusations against Catholicism turned out to be untrue, it seems reasonable to consider that the same accusations against Islam are also untrue.

The bigotry against Muslims has also been compared to the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. In an exchange with a questioner who asked “when can we get rid of them?” (“them” being Muslims), Trump responded that he will “looking at that and plenty of other things.” In the case of Japanese Americans, the fear was that they would serve as spies  and saboteurs for Japan, despite being American citizens. The reality was, of course, that Japanese Americans served America just as loyally as German Americans and Italian Americans. The bigotry against Muslims seems to be rather similar to the same bigotry that led to “getting rid of” Japanese Americans. I would hope that what we learned as a country from the injustice against the Japanese Americans would make any decent American ashamed of talk of getting rid of American citizens.

While it is possible that Islam is the one religion that cannot become part of American society, history shows that claims that seem to be bigotry generally turn out to be just that. As such, it seems rather reasonable to regard the accusations against American Muslims as bigotry. This is not to make the absurd claim that every single American Muslim is an ideal, law abiding citizen—just a refutation of unthinking bigotry.


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Skepticism, Locke & Games

In philosophy skepticism is the view that we lack knowledge. There are numerous varieties of skepticism and these are defined by the extent of the doubt endorsed by the skeptic. A relatively mild case of skepticism might involve doubts about metaphysical claims while a truly rabid skeptic would doubt everything—including her own existence.

While many philosophers have attempted to defeat the dragon of skepticism, all of these attempts seem to have failed. This is hardly surprising—skepticism seems to be unbreakable. The arguments for this have an ancient pedigree and can be distilled down to two simple arguments.

The first goes after the possibility of justifying a belief and thus attacks the standard view that knowledge requires a belief that is true and justified. If a standard of justification is presented, then there is the question of what justifies that standard. If a justification is offered, then the same question can be raised into infinity. And beyond. If no justification is offered, then there is no reason to accept the standard.

A second stock argument for skepticism is that any reasonable argument given in support of knowledge can be countered by an equally reasonable argument against knowledge.  Some folks, such as the famous philosopher Chisholm, have contended that it is completely fair to assume that we do have knowledge and begin epistemology from that point. However, this seems to have all the merit of grabbing the first place trophy without actually competing.

Like all sane philosophers, I tend to follow David Hume in my everyday life: my skepticism is nowhere to be seen when I am filling out my taxes, sitting in brain numbing committee meeting, or having a tooth drilled. However, like a useless friend, it shows up again when it is no longer needed. As such, it would be nice if skepticism could be defeated or a least rendered irrelevant.

John Locke took a rather interesting approach to skepticism. While, like Descartes, he seemed to want to find certainty, he settled for a practical approach to the matter. After acknowledging that our faculties cannot provide certainty, he asserted that what matters to us is the ability of our faculties to aid us in our preservation and wellbeing.

Jokingly, he challenges “the dreamer” to put his hand into a furnace—this would, he claims, wake him “to a certainty greater than he could wish.” More seriously, Locke contends that our concern is not with achieving epistemic certainty. Rather, what matters is our happiness and misery. While Locke can be accused of taking an easy out rather than engaging the skeptic in a battle of certainty or death, his approach is certainly appealing. Since I happened to think through this essay while running with an injured back, I will use that to illustrate my view on this matter.

When I set out to run, my back began hurting immediately. While I could not be certain that I had a body containing a spine and nerves, no amount of skeptical doubt could make the pain go away—in regards to the pain, it did not matter whether I really had a back or not. That is, in terms of the pain it did not matter whether I was a pained brain in a vat or a pained brain in a runner on the road. In either scenario, I would be in pain and that is what really mattered to me.

As I ran, it seemed that I was covering distance in a three-dimensional world. Since I live in Florida (or what seems to be Florida) I was soon feeling quite warm and had that Florida feel of sticky sweat. I could eventually feel my thirst and some fatigue. Once more, it did not seem to really matter if this was real—whether I was really bathed in sweat or a brain bathed in some sort of nutrient fluid, the run was the same to me. As I ran, I took pains to avoid cars, trees and debris. While I did not know if they were real, I have experience what it is like to be hit by a car (or as if I was hit by a car) and also experience involving falling (or the appearance of falling). In terms of navigating through my run, it did not matter at all whether it was real or not. If I knew for sure that my run was really real for real that would not change the run. If I somehow knew it was all an illusion that I could never escape, I would still run for the sake of the experience of running.

This, of course, might seem a bit odd. After all, when the hero of a story or movie finds out that she is in a virtual reality what usually follows is disillusionment and despair. However, my attitude has been shaped by years of gaming—both tabletop (BattleTech, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and so many more) and video (Zork, Doom, Starcraft, Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, and many more). When I am pretending to be a paladin, the Master Chief, or a Guardian, I know I am doing something that is not really real for real. However, the game can be pleasant and enjoyable or unpleasant and awful. This enjoyment or suffering is just as real as enjoyment or suffering caused by what is supposed to be really real for real—though I believe it is but a game.

If I somehow knew that I was trapped in an inescapable virtual reality, then I would simply keep playing the game—that is what I do. Plus, it would get boring and awful if I stopped playing. If I somehow knew that I was in the really real world for real, I would keep doing what I am doing. Since I might be trapped in just such a virtual reality or I might not, the sensible thing to do is keep playing as if it is really real for real. After all, that is the most sensible option in every case. As such, the reality or lack thereof of the world I think I occupy does not matter at all. The play, as they say, is the thing.


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Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Political Candidates & Expertise

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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There is a popular belief that Mohawks have no fear of heights. Though part Mohawk, I apparently did not get the part that is fearless about heights: I am terrified of heights. But, I believe a person should not be ruled by fear and so never let that fear control me. This explains how I ended up falling off the roof and tearing my quadriceps tendon, thus showing that too much philosophy can bust you up. For those not familiar with this important body part, it is that tendon that allows one to do such things as stand and walk. But, I digress—time to leave the subject of falling and get on with the topic at hand.

This fear of heights applies to flying—as soon as I buy my tickets, I start experiencing a sense of dread. In the past, my rather masochistic coping method was to get a window seat and force myself to stare downwards at the ever more distant earth. I got this approach from Aristotle, the stoics and running: one becomes what one does, attitude matters a great deal, and the way to learn to endure pain is to face that pain. While I still dislike heights, the fear is now “at distance”—it is, to use a metaphor, as if I am looking at it from a great height. So, while too much philosophy can bust one up, it can also provide a useful theoretical foundation for weird coping mechanisms. And some say that philosophy is useless.

These days my main dislike of flying is that the process, at least for most of us, is unpleasant. In the United States, we are forced into bit parts in the security theater. Shoes must be removed, forcing us to shuffle along in socks (or barefoot) which feels just a bit humiliating.  It is as if we are bad children who might track dirt into the pristine airport. Next is the body scan—which is apparently useless because I am always patted down anyway after the scan. But, perhaps people really cannot resist running their hands over my awesome bod. Or a look like a criminal. With an awesome bod.

Then there is the ritual of getting dressed again—shoes on, belt on, watch back on, wallet back in the pocket and so on. Sort of a wham, bam, thank you Sam sort of situation. Some folks do get to bypass some of the process—those willing to shuck out some extra cash and time getting checked by the state. I call this process theater for the obvious reason that it is theater—the security can be easily bypassed and seems based on the principle that discomforting and humiliating people will make them feel safer. That said, I have friends and relatives in the TSA and think well of them—they are good people. The system, which they do not control, is another matter.

While I usually fly Delta, I suspect most airlines have a similar boarding process. Like an oppressive state, Delta has a very rigid class system that governs one’s privileges and one’s abuse. While folks with special needs get to go first, after that there are various distinct groups—these seemed to be named on the basis of precious substances like diamonds, gold and quatloos. I assume this is because to get in those groups one must have an adequate supply of diamonds or gold.

Back in the day, boarding early was not much of a privilege: one just got to sit in the plane longer. However, when airlines started charging people for luggage, getting on early became rather important. When everyone is trying to bring on as much as possible as carryon luggage, getting on the plane early can make the difference between jamming that giant rolling “carry on” into the overhead or having it subject to the tender mercies of baggage handling. Interestingly, airlines have started offering to check large carryon luggage for free when flights are crowded—their solution to the problem created by charging for checked luggage is to offer free checked luggage. I suspect that this creates some sort of paradox and that Christopher Nolan will include it in his next movie. There also seems to be a prestige associated with boarding early—folks who can afford the Royal Secret Diamond Elite Magic Flyer level can presumably afford to pay for checked luggage (though they often seem well-laden with carryon luggage as well).

First class, as the name implies, also enjoys better treatment: they have larger seats, get to board early, and generally have better snacks and drinks. They also seem to get special treatment: while the boarding of my last flight was underway, the stewardess had to delay the progress of the little people (coach class) to bring beverages to two folks in first class. We waited there, holding our carryon luggage, until she brought them their drinks and returned. I waited for her—she was just doing her job. I was not very happy with the first class folks—it is a bit classless to hold up boarding because one cannot wait a few minutes for a drink.

On the plus side, the time spent waiting for the better folks to receive their drinks gave me time to apply some pseudo-Marxism to the oppressive class system of the airlines. Since I lack Marx’s writing chops, the best slogan I could come up with was “flyers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your cramped seats and comically limited overhead space!” I am certainly looking forward to the classless utopia of the future in which each person is seated according to her size and pays in accord with how much crap she brings on the plane. Plus booze for everyone.

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Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.

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The monsters of Jurassic World

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss – and perhaps clarify – them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits – I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other – we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world.

Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun – scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie – alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters’ attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly – they are pretty much treated as dino fodder – but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil – the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator – a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more – perhaps triply? – unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.


Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive – and perhaps as simply inevitable – whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons – valuable or otherwise – play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ex Machina & Other Minds III: The Mind of the Machine

While the problem of other minds is a problem in epistemology (how does one know that another being has/is a mind?) there is also the metaphysical problem of determining the nature of the mind. It is often assumed that there is one answer to the metaphysical question regarding the nature of mind. However, it is certainly reasonable to keep open the possibility that there might be minds that are metaphysically very different. One area in which this might occur is in regards to machine intelligence, an example of which is Ava in the movie Ex Machina, and organic intelligence. The minds of organic beings might differ metaphysically from those of machines—or they might not.

Over the centuries philosophers have proposed various theories of mind and it is certainly interesting to consider which of these theories would be compatible with machine intelligence. Not surprisingly, these theories (with the exception of functionalism) were developed to provide accounts of the minds of living creatures.

One classic theory of mind is identity theory.  This a materialist theory of mind in which the mind is composed of mater.  What distinguished the theory from other materialist accounts of mind is that each mental state is taken as being identical to a specific state of the central nervous system. As such, the mind is equivalent to the central nervous system and its states.

If identity theory is the only correct theory of mind, then machines could not have minds (assuming they are not cyborgs with human nervous systems). This is because such machines would lack the central nervous system of a human. There could, however, be an identity theory for machine minds—in this case the machine mind would be identical to the processing system of the machine and its states. On the positive side, identity theory provides a straightforward solution to the problem of other minds: whatever has the right sort of nervous system or machinery would have a mind. But, there is a negative side. Unfortunately for classic identity theory, it has been undermined by the arguments presented by Saul Kripke and David Lewis’ classic “Mad Pain & Martian Pain.” As such, it seems reasonable to reject identity theory as an account for traditional human minds as well as machine minds.

Perhaps the best known theory of mind is substance dualism. This view, made famous by Descartes, is that there are two basic types of entities: material entities and immaterial entities. The mind is an immaterial substance that somehow controls the material substance that composes the body. For Descartes, immaterial substance thinks and material substance is unthinking and extended.

While most people are probably not familiar with Cartesian dualism, they are familiar with its popular version—the view that a mind is a non-physical thing (often called “soul”) that drives around the physical body. While this is a popular view outside of academics, it is rejected by most scientists and philosophers on the reasonable grounds that there seems to be little evidence for such a mysterious metaphysical entity. As might be suspected, the idea that a machine mind could be an immaterial entity seems even less plausible than the idea that a human mind could be an immaterial entity.

That said, if it is possible that the human mind is an immaterial substance that is somehow connected to an organic material body, then it seems equally possible that a machine mind could be an immaterial substance somehow connected to a mechanical material body. Alternatively, they could be regarded as equally implausible and hence there is no special reason to regard a machine ghost in a mechanical shell as more unlikely than a ghost in an organic shell. As such, if human minds can be immaterial substances, then so could machines minds.

In terms of the problem of other minds, there is the rather serious challenge of determining whether a being has an immaterial substance driving its physical shell. As it stands, there seems to be no way to prove that such a substance is present in the shell. While it might be claimed that intelligent behavior (such as passing the Cartesian or Turing test) would show the presence of a mind, it would hardly show that there is an immaterial substance present. It would first need to be established that the mind must be an immaterial substance and this is the only means by which a being could pass these tests. It seems rather unlikely that this will be done. The other forms of dualism discussed below also suffer from this problem.

While substance dualism is the best known form of dualism, there are other types. One other type is known as property dualism. This view does not take the mind and body to be substances. Instead, the mind is supposed to be made up of mental properties that are not identical with physical properties. For example, the property of being happy about getting a puppy could not be reduced to a particular physical property of the nervous system. Thus, the mind and body are distinct, but are not different ontological substances.

Coincidentally enough, there are two main types of property dualism: epiphenomenalism and interactionism. Epiphenomenalism is the view that the relation between the mental and physical properties is one way:  mental properties are caused by, but do not cause, the physical properties of the body. As such, the mind is a by-product of the physical processes of the body. The analogy I usually use to illustrate this is that of a sparkler (the lamest of fireworks): the body is like the sparkler and the sparks flying off it are like the mental properties. The sparkler causes the sparks, but the sparks do not cause the sparkler.

This view was, apparently, created to address the mind-body problem: how can the non-material mind interact with the material body? While epiphenomenalism cuts the problem in half, it still fails to solve the problem—one way causation between the material and the immaterial is fundamentally as mysterious as two way causation. It also seems to have the defect of making the mental properties unnecessary and Ockham’s razor would seem to require going with the simpler view of a physical account of the mind.

As with substance dualism, it might seem odd to imagine an epiphenomenal mind for a machine. However, it seems no more or less weirder than accepting such a mind for a human being. As such, this does seem to be a possibility for a machine mind. Not a very good one, but still a possibility.

A second type of property dualism is interactionism. As the name indicates, this is the theory that the mental properties can bring about changes in the physical properties of the body and vice versa. That is, interaction road is a two-way street. Like all forms of dualism, this runs into the mind-body problem. But, unlike substance dualism is does not require the much loathed metaphysical category of substance—it just requires accepting metaphysical properties. Unlike epiphenomenalism it avoids the problem of positing explicitly useless properties—although it can be argued that the distinct mental properties are not needed. This is exactly what materialists argue.

As with epiphenomenalism, it might seem odd to attribute to a machine a set of non-physical mental properties. But, as with the other forms of dualism, it is really no stranger than attributing the same to organic beings. This is, obviously, not an argument in its favor—just the assertion that the view should not be dismissed from mere organic prejudice.

The final theory I will consider is the very popular functionalism. As the name suggests, this view asserts that mental states are defined in functional terms. So, a functional definition of a mental state defines the mental state in regards to its role or function in a mental system of inputs and outputs. More specifically, a mental state, such as feeling pleasure, is defined in terms of the causal relations that it holds to external influences on the body (such as a cat video on YouTube), other mental states, and the behavior of the rest of the body.

While it need not be a materialist view (ghosts could have functional states), functionalism is most often presented as a materialist view of the mind in which the mental states take place in physical systems. While the identity theory and functionalism are both materialist theories, they have a critical difference. For identity theorists, a specific mental state, such as pleasure, is identical to a specific physical state, such the state of neurons in a very specific part of the brain. So, for two mental states to be the same, the physical states must be identical. Thus, if mental states are specific states in a certain part of the human nervous system, then anything that lacks this same nervous system cannot have a mind. Since it seems quite reasonable that non-human beings could have (or be) minds, this is a rather serious defect for a simple materialist theory like identity theory. Fortunately, the functionalists can handle this problem.

For the functionalist, a specific mental state, such as feeling pleasure (of the sort caused by YouTube videos of cats), is not defined in terms of a specific physical state. Instead, while the physicalist functionalist believes every mental state is a physical state, two mental states being the same requires functional rather than physical identity.  As an analogy, consider a PC using an Intel processor and one using an AMD processor. These chips are physically different, but are functionally the same in that they can run Windows and Windows software (and Linux, of course).

As might be suspected, the functionalist view was heavily shaped by computers. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that the functionalist account of the mind would be a rather plausible account of machine minds.

If mind is defined in functionalist terms, testing for other minds becomes much easier. One does not need to find a way to prove a specific metaphysical entity or property is present. Rather, a being must be tested in order to determine its functions. Roughly put, if it can function like beings that are already accepted as having minds (that is, human beings), then it can be taken as having a mind. Interestingly enough, both the Turing Test and the Cartesian test mentioned in the previous essays are functional tests: what can use true language like a human has a mind.


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Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and

  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.