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We hope to see you in Vancouver, British Columbia for the 2015 American Philosophical Association – Pacific meeting! OUP staff members have gathered together to discuss what we’re interested in seeing at the upcoming conference, as well as fun sights around Vancouver. Take time to visit the Oxford University Press Booth. Browse new and featured books which will include an exclusive 30% conference discount. Pick up complimentary copies of our philosophy journals which include Mind, Monist, Philosophical Quarterly, and more.
To celebrate Women in Philosophy as part of Women’s History Month, we have created a reading list of books, journals, and online resources that explore significant female philosophers and feminist philosophy in general. Recommendations range from general interest books to biographies to advanced reader books and more.
Morality is a funny thing. On the one hand, it stands as a normative boundary – a barrier between us and the evils that threaten our lives and humanity. It protects us from the darkness, both outside and within ourselves. And it structures and guides our conception of what it is to be good (decent, honorable, honest, compassionate) and to live well.
In 2011, the Middle East saw more people peacefully protesting long entrenched dictatorships than at any time in its history. The dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were deposed in a matter of weeks by nonviolent marches. Described as 'the Arab Spring', the revolution has been convulsing the whole region ever since.
This March, Oxford University Press is celebrating Women in Philosophy as part of Women’s History Month. We asked three of our female staff members who work on our distinguished list of philosophy books and journals to describe what it’s like to work on philosophy titles. Eleanor Collins is a Senior Assistant Commission Editor in philosophy who works in the Oxford office. Lucy Randall is a Philosophy Editor who works from our New York office. Sara McNamara is an Associate Editor who assists to manage our philosophy journals from our New York offices.
When I tell people I've spent the last three years working on a book about Atlantis, they usually have two questions. The first almost always goes unspoken: Are you nuts? (I don't think so, but perhaps I'd be the last to know.) The follow-up question — which almost always does get asked — is where [...]
A generalization is a claim of the form: (1) All A’s are B’s. A generalization about generalizations is thus a claim of the form: (2) All generalizations are B. Some generalizations about generalizations are true. For example: (3) All generalizations are generalizations. And some generalizations about generalizations are false. For example: (4) All generalizations are false. In order to see that (4) is false, we could just note that (3) is a counterexample to (4).
Philosophers love to complain about bad reasoning. How can those other people commit such silly fallacies? Don’t they see how arbitrary and inconsistent their positions are? Aren’t the counter examples obvious? After complaining, philosophers often turn to humor. Can you believe what they said! Ha, ha, ha. Let’s make fun of those stupid people. I also enjoy complaining and joking, but I worry that this widespread tendency among philosophers puts us out of touch with the rest of society.
In the history of Britain, eighteenth century Scotland stands out as a period of remarkable intellectual energy and fertility. The Scottish Enlightenment, as it came to be known, is widely regarded as a crowning cultural achievement, with philosophy the jewel in the crown. Adam Smith, David Hume, William Robertson, Thomas Reid and Adam Ferguson are just the best known among an astonishing array of innovative thinkers, whose influence in philosophy, economics, history and sociology can still be found at work in the contemporary academy.
Dante can seem overwhelming. T.S. Eliot’s peremptory declaration that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: there is no third’ is more likely to be off-putting these days than inspiring. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being staged and filmed, and in all sorts of ways, with big names in the big parts, and when we see them we can connect with the characters and the issues with not too much effort.
Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Sarah's perspective.
Parmenides, in the Way of Mortal Opinion, envisions the sensible world to be governed by Fire and Night, understood as cosmic principles. As a consequence, Parmenides conceives of the colors as themselves mixtures of light and dark. Parmenides’ view, here, is in line with an ancient tradition dating back at least to Homeric times.
Now in their 39th year, the PROSE Awards honor “the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in over 40 categories,” as determined by a jury of peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals.
Renowned English cosmologist Stephen Hawking has made his name through his work in theoretical physics as a bestselling author. His life – his pioneering research, his troubled relationship with his wife, and the challenges imposed by his disability – is the subject of a poignant biopic, The Theory of Everything. Directed by James Marsh, the film stars Eddie Redmayne, who has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his moving portrayal.
Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Roxanna’s perspective.
Roxanna is a heartless logician with an exotic background. She would much rather be right than be liked, and as a result she argues mercilessly with the other characters.
Roxana: You appear not to know much about logic.
Sarah: What did you say?
Roxana: I said that you appear not to know much about logic.
Sarah: And you appear not to know much about manners.
Roxana: If you want to understand truth and falsity, logic will be more useful than manners. Do any of you remember what Aristotle said about truth and falsity?
Bob: Sorry, I know nothing about Aristotle.
Zac: It’s on the tip of my tongue.
Sarah: Aristotelian science is two thousand years out of date.
Roxana: None of you knows. Aristotle said ‘To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true’. Those elementary principles are fundamental to the logic of truth. They remain central in contemporary research. They were endorsed by the greatest contributor to the logic of truth, the modern Polish logician Alfred Tarski.
Bob: Never heard of him. I’m sure Aristotle’s saying is very wise; I wish I knew what it meant.
Roxana: I see that I will have to begin right at the very beginning with these three.
Sarah: We can manage quite well without a lecture from you, thank you very much.
Roxana: It is quite obvious that you can’t.
Roxana: It is quite obvious that you can’t.
Zac: I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name.
Roxana: Of course you didn’t. I didn’t say it.
Zac: May I ask what it is?
Roxana: You may, but it is irrelevant.
Bob: Well, don’t keep us all in suspense. What is it?
Roxana: It is ‘Roxana’.
Zac: Nice name, Roxana. Mine is ‘Zac’, by the way.
Bob: I hope our conversation wasn’t annoying you.
Roxana: Its lack of intellectual discipline was only slightly irritating.
Bob: Sorry, we got carried away. Just to complete the introductions, I’m Bob, and this is Sarah.
Roxana: That is enough time on trivialities. I will explain the error in what the woman called ‘Sarah’ said.
Sarah: Call me ‘Sarah’, not ‘the woman called “Sarah” ’, if you please.
Bob: ‘Sarah’ is shorter.
Sarah: Not only that. We’ve been introduced. It’s rude to describe me at arm’s length, as though we weren’t acquainted.
Roxana: If we must be on first name terms, so be it. Do not expect them to stop me from explaining your error. First, I will illustrate Aristotle’s observation about truth and falsity with an example so simple that even you should all be capable of understanding it. I will make an assertion.
Bob: Here goes.
Roxana: Do not interrupt.
Bob: I was always the one talking at the back of the class.
Zac: Don’t worry about Bob, Roxana. We’d all love to hear your assertion. Silence, please, everyone.
Roxana: Samarkand is in Uzbekistan.
Sarah: Is that it?
Roxana: That was the assertion.
Bob: So that’s where Samarkand is. I always wondered.
Roxana: Concentrate on the logic, not the geography. In making that assertion about Samarkand, I speak truly if, and only if, Samarkand is in Uzbekistan. I speak falsely if, and only if, Samarkand is not in Uzbekistan.
Zac: Is that all, Roxana?
Roxana: It is enough.
Bob: I think I see. Truth is telling it like it is. Falsity is telling it like it isn’t. Is that what Aristotle meant?
Roxana: That paraphrase is acceptable for the present.
Have you got something you want to say to Roxanna? Do you agree or disagree with her? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Roxanna’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 20th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Roxanna’s response!
Marvin is a delusional dater. He somehow talked the gorgeous Maria into going on a date with him, and today is the day. Maria is way out of Marvin’s league but he lacks self-knowledge. He thinks he is better looking, better dressed, and more interesting than he really is. Yet his illusions about himself serve a purpose. They give him self-belief and as a result the date goes better than it would have done otherwise. Maria is still out of Marvin’s league, but is at least impressed by his nerve and self-confidence, if not by his conversation.
The case of the delusional dater suggests that self-knowledge doesn’t necessarily make you happier or more successful, at least in the short term. According to social psychologists Timothy Wilson and Elizabeth Dunn, there are physical and mental benefits associated with maintaining slight or moderate self-illusions, such as believing one is more generous, intelligent, and attractive than is actually the case. There are some truths about ourselves which, like Marvin, we are better off not knowing.
Real world examples of the benefits of moderate self-illusions are not hard to find. In my experience as a university teacher, average students who believe they are better than that tend to work harder and do better than average students who know their own limitations. Studies of HIV-positive men have shown that they are more likely to practice safe sex if they believe they are unlikely to get AIDS. Sometimes positive self-illusions can be even self-fulfilling. Studies of women at weight loss clinics have shown they are more likely to lose weight if they believe they are going to lose weight.
My favourite example of the power of self-illusions is a famous study of snake-phobic subjects who were played what they believed were the sounds of their own heartbeats as they were shown slides of snakes. In fact, instead of their own racing hearts, they were played the steady heartbeats of someone with no fear of snakes. As a result, the snake-phobic subjects inferred that they weren’t that scared of snakes after all and became less snake-phobic.
Knowledge of how generous, attractive, or frightened you are might not sound like “self-knowledge.” We like to think of self-knowledge as something deeper, as knowledge of the “real you.” But the real you isn’t something apart from your thoughts, motives, emotions, character traits, values and personality. Knowledge of these things is knowledge of the “real you,” and the question remains why knowledge of the real you should matter. Most of us have heard of the ancient command to “Know thyself” but few have dared to ask what good it does.
Low-end explanations of the value of self-knowledge say that self-knowledge is a good thing because it makes you happier or more successful. High-end explanations say that the real point of self-knowledge is that having it enables us to live more authentic and meaningful lives. From this standpoint it doesn’t matter if self-knowledge doesn’t guarantee happiness or success. That was never the point of “Know thyself.”
High-end explanations of the value of self-knowledge are seductive but don’t really work. To be authentic is to be true to yourself, and you might wonder how you can be true to yourself, to who you really are, if you don’t know yourself. Actually, it’s easy to show that authenticity is possible without self-knowledge. Suppose the opportunity arises to cheat in a card game but you don’t cheat because you aren’t a cheat. In refraining from cheating you are being true to yourself but what makes you refrain from cheating is the fact that you aren’t a cheat. You don’t need to know you aren’t a cheat for you not to cheat. You can be true to yourself regardless of whether you know yourself.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Could this be why self-knowledge matters? The idea that self-knowledge has something to do with finding meaning in your life is promising but controversial. There is plenty of evidence that people find their life choices more meaningful when they are consistent with the kind of person they think they are, but the kind of person you think you are may be quite different from the kind of person you actually are. Being mistaken about the kind of person you are needn’t prevent you from finding your life meaningful on its own terms.
Am I saying that self-knowledge is worthless? Not at all. What I’m saying – and this might be a surprising thing for a philosopher to be saying – is that self-knowledge is overrated in our culture. The truth of the matter is not that you can’t live authentically, meaningfully, or happily without self-knowledge, but that a modicum of self-knowledge might, depending on the circumstances, improve your prospects of living in these ways. While self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, you are unlikely to do well in life if you are grossly self-ignorant. Marvin’s self-illusions might get him through his date with Maria but in the longer term he will save himself the pain of repeated rejection if he stops kidding himself.
“While self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, you are unlikely to do well in life if you are grossly self-ignorant.”
The same applies to talentless contestants of reality TV talent shows. It’s hard not to think that delusional contestants who believe they can sing like Michael Jackson would in the end live happier lives if they learned to handle the truth about themselves. How can you plan your life if you are completely clueless about what you are good at? At some point, you need to come to terms with the real you, and the challenge is to figure out how to do that.
Writing in the 17th century, René Descartes saw self-knowledge as strictly first-personal, as the product of a special kind of mental self-examination. Descartes was wrong. We aren’t unbiased observers of our own inner selves, and the studies suggest that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t to be trusted. We all like to think well of ourselves.
A better bet is to try to see yourself through the eyes of others. When it comes to the real you, your friends, colleagues, and nearest and dearest probably have deeper insights than you do. The self-knowledge you get by social interaction is indirect and third-personal but that’s okay. For example, you might not think that you are generous but if everyone you are close to thinks that you are tight with money then that trumps your self-conception. In this case, other people know the real you better than you know the real you.
Of course, seeing ourselves through the eyes of others can be hard to do, especially when their opinion is unflattering. That’s one of many factors which make worthwhile self-knowledge so hard to get. So if self-knowledge is something which matters to you then here is some practical advice: try to accept that reliable self-knowledge is not something you can get by self-examination. Instead, try to see yourself as others see you, and give up any idea that you are always the best judge of the real you. Even with the help of others, a degree of self-ignorance is unavoidable. But if self-ignorance is part of the human condition, so is the ability to get by without really knowing ourselves.
We like to think that we can control the contents of our mind, but if we watch ourselves think, we will quickly realize that this isn’t so.
If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Sit in a quiet room for five minutes, during which time you stare at a blank wall and try to empty your mind of thoughts. Unless you are an exceptional person, you won’t succeed. You might find yourself thinking about what you will have for dinner or about something your significant other said—or failed to say.
You might also have experienced the ideas-from-without phenomenon while doing a crossword puzzle. You needed, say, a three-letter word meaning eggs. You pondered the clue for a minute and drew a complete blank. And then, when you had given up on the puzzle and turned your attention to other things, the answer came to you: ova!
And of course, while you are sleeping, your mind is periodically filled with ideas not of your choosing. We call them dreams, and they can be wildly creative. A gopher singing the blues! How crazy is that?
What is the source of all these ideas? Your unconscious mind.
For your unconscious mind, coming up with answers to crossword puzzle questions is child’s play. It can also solve complex problems. Indeed, if you think back, you will realize that your unconscious mind was the source of some of your best ideas. It saw connections you didn’t see, and it considered possibilities you didn’t consider. As a result, it was able to solve problems that boggled your conscious mind.
It is easy, however, to downplay the role your unconscious mind plays in your mental life. This is because your conscious mind is perfectly happy to take credit for the gems that your unconscious mind hands it. But face it, without the ongoing efforts of your unconscious mind, your conscious mind would flounder.
Once you admit that your unconscious mind is the source of whatever brilliance you possess, you can take steps to extract the maximum possible benefit from your association with it. What you will quickly discover is that it can’t be ordered about.
You can’t, for example, wake up one morning and say, “Unconscious mind, today I want you to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture,” one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics. On hearing this request, your unconscious mind will simply laugh—not that you will realize that it is doing so.
What you must instead do is interest your unconscious mind in working on a problem by working on it with your conscious mind. It might take hours, days, or even weeks of unsuccessful conscious effort before your unconscious mind takes an interest. You will know that it has because you will start experiencing aha moments with respect to that problem.
The period when you are trying to interest your unconscious mind in a problem can be deeply frustrating. A writer might sit there for days or weeks writing a draft of a novel, knowing from experience that there is little chance that the words she has written will make it into the final draft. Instead, they will be thrown away when inspiration strikes and the structure of the novel is finally revealed to her. When this finally happens, she might describe the event as a visit from her muse.
Mathematicians also know from experience that the first step in proving a theorem is to fill wastebaskets with failed attempts at proving it. They know that such efforts are simply the price that must be paid to get their unconscious mind interested in a theorem so that it can reveal the trick to proving it.
Writers and mathematicians undertake their conscious efforts knowing that even if their unconscious mind takes an interest in a problem, there is a chance that it won’t deliver the goods. What has happened, in such cases, is that their conscious mind—which as we have seen isn’t that bright—has foolishly chosen to work on a problem that is so difficult that not even their brilliant unconscious mind can solve it.
Because serious problem-solving starts with this leap of faith, it makes it that much sweeter when your unconscious mind does deliver the goods. It is like watching a magic show in which you are both the magician and the audience. And if you have any humility at all, you will, at the dinner you have to celebrate “your” breakthrough insight, drink a toast to your unconscious mind.
Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Zac’s perspective.
Zac wants everyone to be at peace with everyone else, whatever their differences. He tries to intervene and offer a solution to the conflicts that arise between the other characters, but often ends up getting dragged in himself.
Sarah: It’s pointless arguing with you. Nothing will shake your faith in witchcraft!
Bob: Will anything shake your faith in modern science?
Zac: Excuse me, folks, for butting in: sitting here, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You both seem to be getting quite upset. Perhaps I can help. If I may say so, each of you is taking the superior attitude ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ toward the other.
Sarah: But I am right and he is wrong.
Bob: No. I’m right and she’s wrong.
Zac: There, you see: deadlock. My guess is, it’s becoming obvious to both of you that neither of you can definitively prove the other wrong.
Sarah: Maybe not right here and now on this train, but just wait and see how science develops—people who try to put limits to what it can achieve usually end up with egg on their face.
Bob: Just you wait and see what it’s like to be the victim of a spell. People who try to put limits to what witchcraft can do end up with much worse than egg on their face.
Zac: But isn’t each of you quite right, from your own point of view? What you—
Zac: Pleased to meet you, Sarah. I’m Zac, by the way. What Sarah is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of modern science. And what you—
Zac: Pleased to meet you, Bob. What Bob is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of traditional witchcraft. Modern science and traditional witchcraft are different points of view, but each of them is valid on its own terms. They are equally intelligible.
Sarah: They may be equally intelligible, but they aren’t equally true.
Zac: ‘True’: that’s a very dangerous word, Sarah. When you are enjoying the view of the lovely countryside through this window, do you insist that you are seeing right, and people looking through the windows on the other side of the train are seeing wrong?
Sarah: Of course not, but it’s not a fair comparison.
Zac: Why not, Sarah?
Sarah: We see different things through the windows because we are looking in different directions. But modern science and traditional witchcraft ideas are looking at the same world and say incompatible things about it, for instance about what caused Bob’s wall to collapse. If one side is right, the other is wrong.
Zac: Sarah, it’s you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and someone must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over everyone else. But we are all just human beings. We can’t make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.
Sarah: But aren’t you, Zac, saying that Bob and I were both wrong to assume there are right and wrong answers on modern science versus witchcraft, and that you are right to say there are no such right and wrong answers? In fact, aren’t you contradicting yourself?
Have you got something you want to say to Zac? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Zac’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 13th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Zac’s response!
A few really disastrous mistakes have dominated Western philosophy for the past several centuries. The worst mistake of all is the idea that the universe divides into two kinds of entities, the mental and the physical (mind and body, soul and matter). A related mistake, almost as bad, is in our philosophy of perception. All of the great philosophers of the present era, beginning with Descartes, made the same mistake, and it colored their account of knowledge and indeed their account of pretty much everything. By ‘great philosophers’, I mean Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant. I am prepared to throw in Hegel and Mill if people think they are great philosophers too. I called this mistake the “Bad Argument”. Here it is: We never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world. All we ever perceive are the perceptual contents of our own mind. These are variously called ‘ideas’ by Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, ‘impressions’ by Hume, ‘representations’ by Kant, and ‘sense data’ by twentieth century theorists. Most contemporary philosophers think they have avoided the mistake, but I do not think they have. It is just repeated in different versions, especially by a currently fashionable view called ‘Disjunctivism’.
But that leaves us with a more interesting problem: What is the correct account of the relation of perceptual experience and the real world? The key to understanding this relation is to understand the intentionality of perception. ‘Intentionality’ is an ugly word, but we can pretty much make clear what it means; a mental state is intentional if it represents, or is about, objects and states of affairs in the world. So beliefs, hopes, fears, desires are all intentional in this sense. ‘Intending’ in the ordinary sense just names one kind of intentionality, along with beliefs, desires, etc. Such intentional states are representations of how things are in the world or how we would like them to be, etc., and we might say therefore that they have “conditions of satisfaction” — truth conditions in the case of belief, fulfillment conditions in the case of intentions, etc.
The biologically most basic and gutsiest forms of intentionality are those where we don’t have mere representations but direct presentations of objects and states of affairs in the world, and part of intentionality is that these must be causally related to the conditions in the world that they present. Perception and intentional action are direct presentations of their conditions of satisfaction. In the case of perception, the conditions of satisfaction have to cause the perceptual experience. In the case of action, the intention in action has to cause the bodily movement. So the key to understanding perception is to see the special features of the causal presentational intentionality of perception. The tough philosophical question is to state how exactly the character of the visual experience, its phenomenology, determines the conditions of satisfaction.
How then does the intentional content fix the conditions of satisfaction? The first step in the answer is to see that perception is hierarchical. In order to see higher level features, such that an object is my car, I have to see such basic features as color and shape. The key to understanding the intentionality of the basic perceptual experience is to see that the feature itself is defined in part by its ability to cause a certain sort of perceptual experience. Being red, for example, consists in part in the ability to cause this sort of experience. Once the intentionality of the basic perceptual features is explained, we can then ask the question of how the presentation of the higher level features, such as seeing that it is my car or my spouse, can be explained in terms of the intentionality of the basic perceptual experiences together with collateral information.
How do we deal with the traditional problems of perception? How do we deal with skepticism? The traditional problem of skepticism arises because exactly the same type of experience can be common to both the hallucinatory and the veridical cases. How are we supposed to know which is which?
Image Credit: Marmalade Skies. Photo by Tom Raven. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.
I call myself a moral philosopher. However, I sometimes worry that I might actually be an immoral philosopher. I worry that there might be something morally wrong with making the arguments I make. Let me explain.
When it comes to preventing poverty related deaths, it is almost universally agreed that Peter Singer is one of the good guys. His landmark 1971 article, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (FAM), not only launched a rich new area of philosophical discussion, but also led to millions in donations to famine relief. In the month after Singer restated the argument from FAM in a piece in the New York Times, UNICEF and OXFAM claimed to have received about $660, 000 more than they usually took in from the phone numbers given in the piece. His organisation, “The Life You Can Save”, used to keep a running estimate of total donations generated. When I last checked the website on 13th February 2012, this figure stood at $62, 741, 848.
Singer argues that the typical person living in an affluent country is morally required to give most of his or her money away to prevent poverty related deaths. To fail to give as much as you can to charities that save children dying of poverty is every bit as bad as walking past a child drowning in a pond because you don’t want to ruin your new shoes. Singer argues that any difference between the child in the pond and the child dying of poverty is morally irrelevant, so failure to help must be morally equivalent. For an approachable version of his argument see Peter Unger, who developed and refined Singer’s arguments in his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die.
I’ve argued that Singer and Unger are wrong: failing to donate to charity is not equivalent to walking past a drowning child. Morality does – and must – pay attention to features such as distance, personal connection and how many other people are in a position to help. I defend what seems to me to be the commonsense position that while most people are required to give much more than they currently do to charities such as Oxfam, they are not required to give the extreme proportions suggested by Singer and Unger.
So, Singer and Unger are the good guys when it comes to debates on poverty-related death. I’m arguing that Singer and Unger are wrong. I’m arguing against the good guys. Does that make me one of the bad guys? It is true that my own position is that most people are required to give more than they do. But isn’t there still something morally dubious about arguing for weaker moral requirements to save lives? Singer and Unger’s position is clear and easy to understand. It offers a strong call to action that seems to actually work – to make people put their hands in their pockets. Isn’t it wrong to risk jeopardising that given the possibility that people will focus only on the arguments I give against extreme requirements to aid?
On reflection, I don’t think what I do is immoral philosophy. The job of moral philosophers is to help people to decide what to believe about moral issues on the basis of reasoned reflection. Moral philosophers provide arguments and critique the arguments of others. We won’t be able to do this properly if we shy away from attacking some arguments because it is good for people to believe them.
In addition, the Singer/Unger position doesn’t really offer a clear, simple conclusion about what to do. For Singer and Unger, there is a nice simple answer about what morality requires us to do: keep giving until giving more would cost us something more morally significant than the harm we could prevent; in other words, keep giving till you have given most of your money away. However, this doesn’t translate into a simple answer about what we should do, overall. For, on Singer’s view, we might not be rationally required or overall required to do what we are morally required to.
This need to separate moral requirements from overall requirements is a result of the extreme, impersonal view of morality espoused by Singer. The demands of Singer’s morality are so extreme it must sometimes be reasonable to ignore them. A more modest understanding of morality, which takes into account the agent’s special concern with what is near and dear to her, avoids this problem. Its demands are reasonable so cannot be reasonably ignored. Looked at in this way, my position gives a clearer and simpler answer to the question of what we should do in response to global poverty. It tells us both what is morally and rationally required. Providing such an answer surely can’t be immoral philosophy.
Headline image credit: Devil gate, Paris, by PHGCOM (Own work). CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
One of Glasgow’s best-known tourist highlights is its Victorian Necropolis, a dramatic complex of Victorian funerary sculpture in all its grandeur and variety. Christian and pagan symbols, obelisks, urns, broken columns and overgrown mortuary chapels in classical, Gothic, and Byzantine styles convey the hope that those who are buried there—the great and the good of 19th century Glasgow—will not be forgotten.
But, of course, they are mostly forgotten and even the conspicuous consumption expressed in this extraordinary array of great and costly monuments has not been enough to keep their names alive. And, of course, we, the living, will soon enough go the same way: ‘As you are now, so once was I’, to recall a once-popular gravestone inscription.
Is this the last word on human life? Religion often claims to offer a different perspective on death since (it is said) the business of religion is not with time, but with eternity. But what, if anything, does this mean?
‘Eternal love’ and ‘eternal memory’ are phrases that spring to the lips of lovers and mourners. Even in secular France, some friends of the recently murdered journalists talked about the ‘immortality’ of their work. But surely that is just a way of talking, a way of expressing our especially high esteem for those described in these terms? And even when talk of eternity and immortality is meant seriously, what would a human life that had ‘put on immortality’ be like? Would it be recognizably human at all? As to God, can we really conceive of what it would be for God (or any other being) to somehow be above or outside of time? Isn’t time the condition for anything at all to be?
If we really take seriously the way in which time pervades all our experiences, all our thinking, and (for that matter) the basic structures of the physical universe, won’t it follow that the religious appeal to eternity is really just a primitive attempt to ward off the spectre of transience, whilst declarations of eternal love and eternal memory are little more than gestures of feeble defiance and that if, in the end, there is anything truly ‘eternal’ it is eternal oblivion—annihilation?
Human beings have a strong track record when it comes to denying reality.
One fashionable book of the post-war period was dramatically entitled The Denial of Death and it argued that our entire civilization was built on the inevitably futile attempt to deny the ineluctable reality of death. But if there is nothing we can do about death, must we always think of time in negative terms—the old man with the hour-glass and scythe, so like the figure of the grim reaper?
And instead of thinking of eternity as somehow beyond or above time, might not time itself offer clues as to the presence of eternity, as in the experiences that mystics and meditators say report as being momentary experiences of eternity in, with, and under the conditions of time? But such experiences, valuable as they are to those who have them, remain marginal unless they can be brought into fruitful connection with the weave of past and future.
From the beginnings of philosophy, recollection has been valued as an important clue to finding the tracks of eternity in time, as in Augustine’s search for God in the treasure-house of memory. But the past can only ever give us so much (or so little) eternity.
A recent French philosopher has proposed that time cannot undo our having-been and that the fact that the unknown slave of ancient times or the forgotten victim of the Nazi death-camps really existed means that the tyrants have failed in their attempt to make them non-human. But this is a meagre consolation if we have no hope for the future and for the flourishing of all that is good and true in time to come. Really affirming the enduring value of human lives and loves therefore presupposes the possibility of hope.
One Jewish sage taught that ‘In remembering lies redemption; in forgetfulness lies exile’ but perhaps what we it is most important to remember is the possibility of hope itself and of going on saying ‘Yes’ to the common, shared reality of human life and of reconciling the multiple broken relationships that mortality leaves unresolved.
Pindar, an ancient poet of hope, wrote that ‘modesty befits mortals’ and if we cannot escape time (which we probably cannot), it is maybe time we have to thank for the possibility of hope and for visions of a better and more blessed life. And perhaps this is also the message that a contemporary graffiti-artist has added to one of the Necropolis’s more ruined monuments. ‘Life goes on’, either extreme cynicism or, perhaps, real hope.
Featured image credit: ‘Life goes on.’ Photo by George Pattison. Used with permission.
Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Bob’s perspective.
Bob is just an ordinary guy who happens to be scared of witches. His beliefs are strongly rooted in personal experience, and this approach brings him to blows with the unyelidingly scientific Sarah.
Sarah: That’s unfair! You don’t expect all the scientific resources of the Western world to be concentrated on explaining why your garden wall collapsed, do you? I’m not being dogmatic, there’s just no reason to doubt that a scientific explanation could in principle be given.
Bob: You expect me to take that on faith? You don’t always know best, you know. I’m actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn’t talk too loud.) My neighbour’s a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.
Sarah: You haven’t explained how your neighbour’s muttering some words could possibly make the wall collapse.
Bob: Who knows how witchcraft works? Whatever it does, that old hag’s malice explains why the wall collapsed just when I was right beside it. Anyway, I bet you can’t explain how deciding in my own mind to plant some bulbs made my legs actually move so I walked out into the garden.
Sarah: It’s only a matter of time before scientists can explain things like that. Neuroscience has made enormous progress over the last few years, discovering how the brain and nervous system work.
Bob: So you say, with your faith in modern science. I bet expert witches can already explain how spells work. They wouldn’t share their knowledge around. Too dangerous. Why should I trust modern science more than witchcraft?
Sarah: Think of all the evidence for modern science. It can explain so much. What evidence is there that witchcraft works?
Bob: My garden wall, for a start.
Sarah: No, I mean proper evidence, statistically significant results of controlled experiments and other forms of reliable data, which science provides.
Bob: You know how witches were persecuted, or rightly punished, in the past. Lots of them were tortured and burnt. It could happen again, if they made their powers too obvious, doing things that could be proved in court. Do you expect them to let themselves be trapped like that again? Anyway, witchcraft is so unfashionable in scientific circles, how many scientists would risk their academic reputations taking it seriously enough to research on it, testing whether it works?
Sarah: Modern science has put men on the moon. What has witchcraft done remotely comparable to that?
Bob: For all we know, that alleged film of men on the moon was done in a studio on earth. The money saved was spent on the military. Anyway, who says witchcraft hasn’t put women on the moon? Isn’t assuming it hasn’t what educated folk call ‘begging the question’?
Sarah: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Do you seriously deny that scientific journals are full of evidence for modern scientific theories? Isn’t all of that evidence against witchcraft?
Bob: How do we know how much of that so-called evidence is genuine? There have been lots of scandals recently about scientists faking their results. For all we know, the ones who get caught are only the tip of the iceberg.
Sarah: Well, if you prefer, look at all the successful technology around you. You’re sitting on a train, and I notice you have a laptop and a mobile phone. Think of all the science that went into them. You’re not telling me they work by witchcraft, are you?
Bob: Lots of modern science and technology is fine in its own way. I went to hospital by ambulance, not broom, thank goodness. None of that means modern science can explain everything.
Have you got something you want to say to Bob? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Bob’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 6th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Bob’s response!
Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, the saying (wrongly attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has become a motto against radicalism. Unfortunately, this virtuous defense of freedom of speech is not only inefficient but is backfiring, as demonstrated by protests in Muslim countries against the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which was released in the aftermath of the attacks.
The challenge of global jihad in Europe is broader and is the result of the lack of symbolic integration of Islam within liberal democracies, as well as the preeminence of a global theology of intolerance which Al Qaida and ISIS have used to build their political ideology.
First, symbolic integration of Islam is different from socio-political integration of Muslims. European politicians have addressed the former through different educational and socio-economic policies, without paying attention to the latter, which refers to the recognition of Islam as part of the respective national culture and history of European countries. This lack of symbolic integration has translated into increasing discriminatory policies vis-à-vis a number of religious practices, from the use of the hijab and the building of mosque minarets, to circumcision and halal food, all deemed “illiberal” and “uncivic.” This discrimination leads a lot of Muslims, even the secular ones, to think that they are not accepted as full members of European societies. This amplifies anti-Islamic discourse, which is no longer the monopoly of extreme right wing movements, but comes to be shared by all political actors from the right to the left.
Islam is presented as an external religion that threatens the core liberties of European democracies and therefore needs to be limited or circumvented. At the same time, since World War II, most European democracies have limited freedom of speech and press when it propagates racial hatred and negation of the Holocaust. That is why, since the Danish cartoons controversy of 2006, some Muslims have argued they should be protected by these same laws, drawing a line between legitimate critique and insult.
Although the distinction can be blurry, Charlie Hebdo satires have not always been funny critiques but blatant insults to the basic creeds of Muslims. This incapacity to differentiate between critique and insult has been played out by radical groups like Al Qaida and ISIS, both of whom seek to recruit members from Western democracies. Both justify global jihad for the sake of Islam, which must be saved from the decadent western enemy. Because this “us versus them” mentality is very accessible to young Muslims everywhere, through the internet and other social media, it is no surprise that this rhetoric resonates with their daily experience in European societies and therefore make some of them easy recruits for global jihad.
In this regard, the preeminence of Salafi-jihadi discourses, which have monopolized the debate on “true” Islam, not only among Muslims but also in the eyes of the general population across Europe, reinforces the antinomy between the West and Islam. This discourse operates on the conceptualization of the “West” as a threat to Islam, not only through military means, but most importantly through attacks on Islamic creeds and practices.
As an inverted image, “Islam” in the eyes of most Europeans is perceived exactly in the same terms: a religion that is a threat to western values. In this sense, the clash is not between civilizations but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims. It will require courage on the part of European politicians, media, and public intellectuals to address Islam as a legitimate part of national communities in order to diminish the sense of alienation that can make some Muslims more vulnerable to the strategy of Al Qaida or ISIS.
The second reason why freedom of the press is irrelevant in the fight against global jihad is the powerful presence of the Salafi version of Islam in the religious market of ideas. This is problematic because, even as most Muslims in the West are not Salafis and the majority of Salafis are not jihadists, groups like Al Qaida and ISIS have a Salafi background. It means that their theological view comes from a particular interpretation of Islam rooted in Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century doctrine adopted by the Saudi kingdom.
“The clash is not between civilizations, but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims.”
In the West, Salafis incite people to withdraw from mainstream society, which is depicted as impure, in order to live by strict rules. These reactionary interpretations do contain similarities with jihadist discourse. So even if Salafism is, in itself, no root cause of radicalization into violence, it serves as the religious framework of radical groups such as ISIS. While there is no doubt that the majority of Muslims do not follow this radical strategy, it is difficult to demystify this theology of intolerance from a traditional Islamic perspective.
In other words, there is an urgent need for Muslim clerics everywhere to systematically overpower the influence of politicized interpretations of Islam, whether through employing the Internet, social media, or other educational tools.
Addressing the need for the symbolic integration of Islam, as well as the global revival of the Islamic tradition, requires Muslim leaders, secular politicians, and lay citizens to share responsibility and common action to overcome the “us versus them” mentality which is at the foundation of all extremism.
Regretfully, the political and religious consensus that dominated the demonstrations against terror in France could have been a symbolic first step in this direction, but is rapidly dissipating.
Image Credit: “Islam.” Photo by Firas. CC by NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
Debates about conscience arise constantly in national and international news. Appropriately so, because these debates provide a vital continuing forum about issues of ethical conduct in our time.
A recent and heated debate in the United States concerns the killing of an unarmed African American youth named Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Questioned by a reporter after learning that he would not be indicted by a grand jury after the shooting, Wilson declared himself untroubled by matters of conscience, explaining that “The reason I have a clean conscience is because I know I did my job right.” In reply, Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump stated that “It was very hurtful to the parents when he said he had a clear conscience. They were taken aback…. I expected him to say my heart is heavy, my conscience is troubled. He didn’t say that.” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden added of the shooting, in which officer Wilson fired six bullets into Brown’s body, “His conscience is clear? How could your conscience be clear after killing somebody even if it was an accidental death?”
At large in this disagreement are two different and contending understandings of conscience. In the police officer’s view, conscience is an external matter, involving adherence to the code and norms of one’s peers and profession; in this case, a matter of doing one’s job correctly, performing one’s duty as dictated by training and the values of fellow officers. In the family’s view, conscience is an internal matter, involving personal and subjective decisions about right and wrong.
This is a recurring debate, as old as conscience itself. Is conscience a private matter of individual ethics or is it a public trust defined by civil codes and collective agreements about duty and responsibility? Sometimes the answer seems rather evident. Arguments about “duty” and “following orders” were brushed aside at the Nuremberg Trials, and few disagree with the verdict. At other times, though, the issue is more closely contested. When Martin Luther pled the anti-institutional promptings of his personal conscience (“This I believe . . .”) before the Diet at Worms, and prosecutor Johann Eck countered with the contrary conclusions of Catholic theology, opinion divided according to the beliefs and loyalties of the beholders.
The very etymology of “conscience” registers its division. The Latin conscientia consists of two elements: scientia (knowledge or awareness, which may be personal in nature) modified by con (meaning “together” or “together with” suggesting that this knowledge should be shared or collective in nature). Conscience thus operates both internally and externally, as knowledge at once personal and shared, sitting at the very boundaries of the self.
This ambiguity was evident in conscience’s first full-dress appearance on the Western European stage. Augustine, in his Confessions, describes a chiding visit from his own conscience (conscientia mea), speaking to him in a voice which is and is not his own, critiquing his irresolute state of mind about the matter of Christian conversion, but also citing the public example of others who have already converted. Augustine’s conscience achieves a balance, between the highly personal on the one hand and more collective decision-making on the other. But we’re not all as subtle as Augustine.
The location of conscience has shifted from inner to outer and back again, throughout its long history. In the Middle Ages, conscience was normally treated as a collective matter, a set of norms or beliefs held in common by all persons.With the Reformation and the fragmentation of religious belief, the idea of a personal conscience–of “my conscience” and “your conscience”–surged to the fore, especially in vigorously Protestant circles. Then, with a general moderation of Christian belief in the Enlightenment, came a revival of collective conscience, a view that certain norms were shared by all reasonable persons. Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant located conscience in the person of an impartial and objective observer, standing outside the self and speaking from the standpoint of a broader social platform.
These disagreements will never be resolved. Some parties will always situate conscience in community values or professional codes of practice, even as others treat it as an inner capacity or inviolable personal resource. The question is, are these disagreements to be taken as signs of conscience’s weakness or the source of its strength? After wrestling with these questions in the course of writing my Very Short Introduction, I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, conscience is inherently ambiguous and may be viewed in this respect as imperfect. But that its ambiguity is also the key to its unprecedented survival, its continuing relevance to seemingly incompatible belief systems. A robust view of conscience must embrace both aspects: conscience as general consensus and conscience as personal code: conscience as public duty but also conscience as personal responsibility.
My purpose here isn’t to retry the Michael Brown case, but to think about what the standpoint of conscience brings to the discussion. A robust definition of conscience must embrace its long and rich history; it must, that is, include a sense of its internal as well as its external claims. Just “doing one’s duty” isn’t enough; Michael Brown’s family is correct in its belief that the taking of a life under any circumstances should involve some perturbations of personal conscience.
Imagine that Banksy, (or J.S.G. Boggs, or some other artist whose name starts with “B”, and who is known for making fake money) creates a perfectly accurate counterfeit dollar bill – that is, he creates a piece of paper that is indistinguishable from actual dollar bills visually, chemically, and in every other relevant physical way. Imagine, further, that our artist looks at his creation and realizes that he has succeeded in creating a perfect forgery. There doesn’t seem to be anything mysterious about such a scenario at first glance – creating a perfect forgery, and knowing one has done so, although extremely difficult (and legally controversial), seems perfectly possible. But is it?
In order for an object to be a perfect forgery, it seems like two criteria must be met. First of all, the object must be a forgery – that is, the object cannot be a genuine instance of the category in question. In this case, our object, which we shall call X, must not be an actual dollar bill:
1.) X is not a dollar bill.
Second, the object must be perfect (as a forgery) – that is, it can’t be distinguished from actual instances of the category in question. We can express this thought as follows:
2.) We cannot know that X is not a dollar bill.
Now, there is nothing that prevents both (1) and (2) from being simultaneously true of some object X (say, our imagined fake dollar bill). But there is an obstacle that seemingly prevents us from knowing that both (1) and (2) are true – that is, from knowing that X is a perfect forgery.
Imagine that we know that (1) is true, and in addition we know that (2) is true. In other words, the following claims hold:
3.) We know that X is not a dollar bill.
4.) We know that we cannot know that X is not a dollar bill.
Knowledge is factive – in other words, if we know a claim is true, then that claim must, in fact, be true. Applying this to the case at hand, this means that claim (4) entails claim (2). But claim (2) and claim (3) are incompatible with each other: (2) says we cannot know that X isn’t a dollar, while (3) says we know it isn’t. Thus, (3) and (4) can’t both be true, since if they were, then a contradiction would also be true (and contradictions can’t be true).
Thus, we have proven that, although perfect forgeries might well be possible, we can never know, of a particular object, that it is a perfect forgery. But an important question remains: If this is right, then what, exactly, is going on in the story with which we began? How is it that our imagined artist doesn’t know that he has created a perfect forgery?
In order to answer this question, it will help to flesh out the story a bit more. So, once again imagine that our artist creates the piece of paper that is visually, chemically, and in every other physical way indistinguishable from a real dollar bill. Call this Stage 1. Now, after admiring his work for a while, imagine that the artist then pulls eight genuine, mint-condition dollar bills out of his wallet, throws them on the table, and then places the forgery he created into the pile, shuffling and mixing until he can no longer identify which of the pieces of paper is the one he created, and which are the ones created by the Mint. Let’s call this Stage 2. How do Stage 1 and Stage 2 differ?
At Stage 1 we do not, strictly speaking, have a case of a perfect forgery. Although the piece of paper the artist created is physically indistinguishable from a dollar bill, the artist can nevertheless know it is not a dollar bill because he knows that he created this particular object. In other words, at Stage 1 he can tell that the forgery is a forgery because he knows the history, and in particular the origin, of the object in question.
Stage 2 is different, however. Now the fake is a perfect forgery, since it still isn’t a dollar, but we can’t know that it isn’t a dollar, since we can no longer distinguish it from the genuine dollars in the pile. So in some sense we know that the fake dollar in the pile is a perfect forgery. But we can’t point to any particular piece of paper and know that it, rather than one of the other eight pieces of paper, is the perfect forgery. In other words, in Stage 2 the following is true:
We know there is an object in the pile that is a perfect forgery.
But the following, initially similar looking claim, is false:
There is an object in the pile that we know is a perfect forgery.
We can sum all this up as follows: We can know that perfect forgeries exist – that is, we can know claims of the form “One of those is a perfect forgery”. But we can’t know, of a particular object, that it is a perfect forgery – that is, we can never know claims of the form “That is a perfect forgery”. And it is this latter sort of claim – that we know, of a particular object, that it is a perfect forgery – that leads to the contradiction.