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Letters to the Editor

More about Acorns • Bashing the Symbols • Scarre on Cars Jars • Campaign for Real Philosophers

More about Acorns

Dear Sir,

I am grateful to the two writers who replied to my piece about oaks and acorns. With Mr. Fisher, who says that the argument is religious or theological rather than philosophical, I have in a sense no quarrel, though of course his claims will cut no ice with those who do not subscribe to a belief in the soul’s immortality. I notice too that he describes the foetus as a potential soul rather than a soul simpliciter. Perhaps then his position too is vulnerable to the objection that potential souls are not souls and we need extra argument to persuade us that they should be treated as though they already were.

Mr. Humphreys accuses me of not fully examining the consequences of my reasoning (I have no doubt he is right about this) and makes the intriguing suggestion that if only the present matters even a normal adult might lack value when asleep or doing something useless like watching Sky TV and hence be an acceptable candidate for killing at such times. I will simply observe here that there is an important difference between such an adult and a foetus or an advanced geriatric patient; namely that the adult, even when he is being useless is capable of being useful, whereas the foetus is not (yet) though it is potentially so capable and the geriatric is not (any more) though he was once.

The point I was trying to make (I think!) was this: we ought as far as possible to match the value judgments we make about the early stages of life with those we make about the final stages. Since the foetus is clearly alive, a better subject for comparison than a corpse might be a patient in PVS (permanent vegetative state) who though certainly alive is not much more than that and depends for his survival on expensive technology. Recent court decisions have stated that it is acceptable in such cases to remove the equipment and allow the patient to die (the courts insist that this is entirely different from killing the patient, which is not allowable, but it is far from clear that this distinction has any basis in morality). This suggests that the value we place on the life of this individual is sufficiently low to make his being allowed to die (being killed?) acceptable. The reasons, one might speculate, are that his life can be of no possible value to himself and of little value even to his closest relations. The same, arguably, applies to the foetus. It cannot yet value its own life, and the fact that its own mother is (presumably) requesting its abortion shows that its life is of no value to her either. “Ah”, comes the reply, “but they are different because the foetus will in time acquire a life which has every chance of being valuable both to itself and to others.” To which the counter-reply is “Yes, but our PVS patient did once have a life which was highly valued by himself and by others (he was chairman of ICI ten years ago, remember). How does he differ in any relevant way from the foetus?”

Such arguments are inevitably inconclusive and inevitably two edged. If we accept the parallel we have the option of accepting the courts’ evaluation of the life of a PVS patient and revising downwards our evaluation of the foetus or alternatively, if we think the normal foetus is something too valuable for its killing to be acceptable we should re-think our current willingness to permit the death of patients in PVS.

Yours sincerely,
Christopher McKnight
Department of Philosophy,
Queen’s University of Belfast

Dying to Read Immortality?

Dear Sir,

I was so interested in Les Reid’s review of the Paul Edwards’ anthology Immortality that I was moved to try to buy a copy. Not living in a university town, with an attendant students’ bookshop, I had to try the provincial Dillons and W.H.Smith, neither of which could find the title. The latter even telephoned Macmillan – the given publisher – for me and they did not know it either.

Undeterred I tried Macmillan’s in Basingstoke myself. They did not know the book but thought that maybe it was one of their American publications. They pointed me to a distribution agency who in turn put me on to International Book Distributors Ltd. Success at last, for they located the title for me. It does come from America and as they had none in stock I had to order a copy through them, with a £3 postage surcharge.

Other readers may require this information, so the full details are: International Book Distributors Ltd. (to whom cheques are payable), Campus 400, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, Herts., HP2 7EZ. Tel. (0442) 881900.

I was told that publishing the ISBN in the review would have made matters a good deal quicker. Maybe you could bear this in mind for the future? Thank you for all your work on the magazine. It is appreciated.

Yours sincerely,
Graham A. Fisher
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Bashing the Symbols

Dear Sir,

In Dan Fleming’s article in Issue 9 on ‘Self and Symbolisation’ he identifies three aspects of the self – the subjective experiencing self, the social self and self as agent.

Mr. Fleming claims in his article that in the middle ages the social self was paramount – but is it not so today as well? Except for the minority of mystics, university denizens and readers of Philosophy Now, do not most people today still define themselves by external symbols – in the form of clothing, possessions, the cost and location of their home, or their affiliation to the company for which they work (BAT, IBM) or their profession, political affiliation or even nationality?

Such people do not strike one as being much different from the inhabitants of mediaeval village society that Postan described. Certainly those chained to the corporate wheel by carefully generous remuneration packages or to the universities via the tenure game, cannot in any real sense be different from those to whom “freedom was not always estimated more highly than, or even as highly as, material possessions.” Academic or status materialism can bind as strongly as possession materialism. Even the spiritual materialism that binds many clerics to the church could be seen in the same way.

I like Mr. Fleming’s approach; I just cannot always follow his reasoning. Surely science has not drained but added mystery to the external world for most of us. The theory of chaos, the quarks and black holes are as mysterious and awesome to most of us as choirs of angels – perhaps more so. Introspection in this context is almost a welcome mediaeval escape from such incomprehensible mysteries into the more familiar incomprehensibility of our own comfortable myths and symbols.

Yours sincerely,
Diana Mahabir
Port of Spain, Trinidad

Scarre on Cars Jars

Dear Editor,

I was delighted that – like over 200 others – Dr. Scarre felt moved to write something down in response to my manifesto for a car-free society in Issue 8. But I suspect that Dr. Scarre’s response, though rightly intentioned, is flawed in a number of ways. Perhaps I could indicate some of these.

Dr. Scarre contends against me, as other critics have, that there is no exact analogy between substance addiction and vehicle addiction. Now, first, an analogy doesn’t have to be exact, it only has to be apt. So the existence of a disanalogy between two things is no evidence of the non-existence of an analogy between those things. But perhaps Dr. Scarre’s point is that the analogy isn’t even apt. He wants to point to a distinction between addiction to a thing for its own sake and addiction to it as a means to something else, and he wants to say that car addiction is a case of the latter, not of the former: “Most people” (he writes) “are not so much addicted to their automobiles as hooked on the benefits which car-driving brings”. And he goes on to list some of the benefits which cars bring us (at least when the motorways are not packed solid, and the town centres choc a bloc with little tin boxes).

Now my first problem with this critique is that it is irrelevant. For in Britain today the motorways are packed solid, and the town centres are choc a bloc with little tin boxes. So it is no good citing the benefits that cars would bring if they weren’t.

And my second problem is like unto the first: while I think that Dr. Scarre’s means/ends distinction is an interesting and valuable one, I also think that, as a matter of fact, he’s mistaken about most people’s attitudes to their cars in our society. People do worship their cars, on an alarming and bizarre scale, as ends in themselves, and it is no good pretending that they don’t.

One pointer to this is how much people spend on their cars. In what aspects of life, except their addictions to nicotine, alcohol and cars, are ordinary Britons so ready to shell out such enormous sums of money without even blinking?

Another pointer is the anomalies of our legal system. How is it that if I kill you by firing a bullet through you, I will be charged with manslaughter and go to prison for years, whereas if I kill you by driving a car through you, I will be charged with causing death by dangerous driving and probably be given no more than a suspended sentence? How did we come to view assault by car as such a special sort of leniency-earning crime, if not by psychological addiction to the car?

And a third pointer: I don’t see car manufacturers selling cars via TV adverts by referring to the sober virtues which Geoffrey Scarre cites – their convenience, ability to keep us in touch with each other and horizonexpanding tendencies. I see them selling the punters a dream, an image, an idol and an addiction. That, and not the convenience and so forth, is what the punters are buying.

A fourth point, incidentally, arises from the list which Dr. Scarre himself gives of advantages of the car. For the benefits of car travel which he mentions almost all have one remarkable feature in common. This is that they are not benefits of car travel at all. They are benefits of travel, full stop.

I fear that Dr. Scarre fails to appreciate the extent of the damage that cars are doing to us; the extent of the pressure (from car manufacturers, the Government, and the road builders) to increase that damage; and the extent to which advocacy of the kind of moderate measures that he advocates is simply failing to make any difference at all. As he himself in effect concedes, everybody (bar a few maniacs) is saying pretty much what he says already. All well and good: but it’s not preventing the car problem from getting worse and worse, is it?

Green rhetoric is cheap and easy – especially when it consists largely of telling other people to do something about our shared problems. But that was the whole point of my article. I wanted to try and get away from cheap, negative, nimby-ish rhetoric about cars, and to encourage people, on an individual basis, to put their money where their mouths are: to do something very positive themselves to bring about change – without waiting for the Government, or anyone else, to be prepared to take these issues seriously. lf we want to transform our car-oriented society into a place fit for humans to live in, as Dr. Scarre clearly does, we need to start with ourselves. We need to start by reassessing the way we live, and considering how we could begin to live differently The car-free pledge is one way of making that difference. It is not a cheap way to change, but it is a real step. I invite Dr. Scarre, and everyone else out there to consider that step very seriously.

Yours sincerely,
Tim Chappell (The Car-Free Movement)
Merton College, Oxford

Campaign for Real Philosophers

Dear Sir,

Wading through yet another turgid essay in an academic journal (certainly not Philosophy Now!) leads me to reflect that we have no philosophers today; we have only teachers of philosophy, a different thing altogether.

It could be argued that we haven’t had a real philosopher since Ortega y Gasset and his thrilling Rebellion of the Masses. What do I mean by a real philosopher? I mean someone of superior intellect and sensibility who offers a largely original perspective on life and presents it in a manner so compelling that it leaves a permanent mark on our own Weltanschauung. Hasn’t many a great philosopher also been a great writer? A literary artist whose work enthrals us whether or not we agree with his views? Plato, Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche – even St. Augustine, that monster writing like an angel! – are so stimulating that we love them even though we reject most of what they would have us believe.

The real philosopher, in short, is fun to be with. He’s looking at life for himself, and however odd his angle of view may seem to us it produces here and there the pure gold of original observation. He’s not talking about philosophy; he’s talking about life.

All you get in academic articles, on the other hand, is endlessly detailed discussion of what some other academic has written! No doubt this is what such journals are for, but it’s all so depressingly self-enclosed that one has to give thanks once again for the creation of Philosophy Now. For it is hard to see what benefit can ever be gained from all that exhaustive criticism of what other writers have written, when the critic himself seems to have nothing original to offer – never the startling insight or the illuminating phrase we cherish in the true philosopher’s legacy. So many such articles read like academic make-work, the bitter fruit of the publish-or-perish imperative.

The real world, in short, is not to be found in that sphere. It’s out here, waiting for a real philosopher to help us make sense of it!

Yours truly,
Peter J. Lorden
Calgary, Alberta

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