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Balancing Liberty and Equality • The Eternal Return of the Absurd • Getting The Moral Facts • Einstein A No-Go… • A Beautiful Mind • Trial Response
Balancing Liberty and Equality
Dear Editor: In his editorial in PN 110, Rick Lewis makes the case that liberty and equality are counter positions, especially politically, since the promotion of some equality is done at the expense of liberty. An obvious example is the entitlement of medical care, guaranteed by the state, promoting equality. This is financed by a taxation, which is a restriction of the liberty of those who are taxed, as they no longer are free to use the money as they see fit.
I wish Mr Lewis had related this to our human nature. We are clearly free to act for reasons or a reason, and for which we are responsible. We are also obviously unequal in many respects (economic class in terms of wealth, height, weight, etc.). Finally, we have a natural moral sense that urges us to promote some equality, which is always done by restricting liberty, and this is usually played out politically. The difficulty is balancing liberty with the expansion of equality. I believe the best formulation is to expand equality only for very good reasons.
Robert M. Craig, M.D., Prof. Emeritus, Northwestern University, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
The Eternal Return of the Absurd
Dear Editor: The article by Stephen Small on Albert Camus in Issue 110 relates Camus’ argument that only by embracing absurdity can we meaningfully revolt against it. Nietzsche, much revered by Camus, christened such life-embracing as amor fati (‘love of fate’). When Camus was tragically killed at the age of 46 in a car accident near Villeblevin en route to his home in Paris, an unused return train ticket to Paris was found in his pocket. Absurdly, despite being apprehensive of road travel, at the last minute he decided to go in a car with his publisher – a journey he never lived to regret. Also found among the scattered debris was a volume of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science with the haunting aphorism no. 341 on ‘Eternal Return’ underlined. Nietzsche designed this beguiling thought-experiment as an ultimate life-affirming principle: we must each live our life in such a way that we would want to re-live it again and again, so that “one wishes nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure what happens of necessity… but love it” he later wrote in Ecce Homo. In essence, we must love our fate, no matter what it brings. Kazantzakis, also a passionate Nietzsche admirer, who narrowly missed winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in favour of Camus, created the character of Zorba the Greek as a human embodiment of the amor fati formula. Zorba, a Dionysian man par excellence, reacts to the tragic finale of his mining experiment not with cries of despair but with a frenzied dance on the Cretan beach, accompanied by much laughter. And how he laughed…
Eva Cybulska, London
Dear Editor: I always enjoy the Brief Lives columns, and the one on Albert Camus in Issue 110 was no exception. It has been said that Camus dying in the accident in 1960 was the ultimate proof of his theory that existence is absurd. However, despite this tragedy, the logic of Camus’ Absurdism is not sound.
First, calling life ‘absurd’ quietly assumes that it should be good, or at least ‘sensible’; I might even go as far as to say that it assumes we shouldn’t die. And when something not-good happens, resorting to Absurdism could be another ‘inauthentic coping strategy’ like those that Camus criticised, for example, ‘philosophical suicide’ as in the death of critical thinking, or taking hope in religion.
Second, a vital point in Absurdism is claiming that the universe is ‘mockingly indifferent’ to the human race. This is also an assumption. Has anyone shown that the universe is indifferent or mocking? How could it be done? To be indifferent, you have to be animated: a person or animal. Or if you allow indifference to be ascribed to the universe without proof, couldn’t you equally ascribe the quality of ‘caring’? Running with that, could an example of caring be the extreme fine-tuning present in the universe to allow life to come into existence in the first place?
Lastly, should the universe care about us? Does it owe us anything? We haven’t always cared terribly well for the small part of the universe we inhabit, have we?
Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Scotland
Getting The Moral Facts
Dear Editor: In an excellent article on the beautiful friendship between science and philosophy in Philosophy Now 109, Amy Cools analyzes my Feb 2015 Scientific American column on ‘A Moral Starting Point’, cautioning me and readers to note David Hume’s warning that one cannot easily derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – that the way something is (e.g., slavery) does not necessarily mean that that is how it ought to be. Unlike most of my other critics, however, Cools correctly notes that Hume never said it is impossible to derive what ought to be from observable facts, only that it is “tricky” (her word) to do so, and that one should have a good reason (Hume’s word) to do so. Yet as I write in my 2015 book The Moral Arc (on which the Scientific American column was based), “But if morals and values should not be based on the way things are – reality – then on what should they be based?… I mean the reality of the ‘is’ under study. When we undertake a study of war… so that we may lessen its occurrence and attenuate its effects, this is an is-ought transition grounded in the true nature of war… I mean [studying] all of the factors that go into the causes of war: biological, anthropological, psychological, sociological, political, economic, and the like.” In this way in the book I develop the argument for why slavery is wrong, beginning with my moral starting point of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings, which I ground “in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group.” Emphasizing the group over the individual too easily leads to utilitarian arguments for the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many, as Cools pointed out. Although many people say that in order to save five people they would divert a runaway trolley down a track where it would kill one person, this would be immoral for the same reason that it’s immoral for a physician to kill a healthy patient to harvest his organs to save five dying patients. As I explained in The Moral Arc, “Slavery is morally wrong because it’s a clear-cut case of decreasing the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings. But why is that wrong? It is wrong because it violates the natural law of personal autonomy and our evolved nature to survive and flourish; it prevents sentient beings from living to their full potential as they choose, and it does so in a manner that requires brute force or the threat thereof, which itself causes incalculable amounts of unnecessary suffering. How do we know that’s wrong? Because of the principle of interchangeable perspectives: I would not want to be a slave, therefore I should not be a slave master.”
Cools makes the point that by using scientific facts alone – that is, without incorporating moral considerations – the case could be made to allow the weak and infirm to simply die, because this is what would likely happen in nature. But this is why throughout my book I say science and reason are necessary tools for determining human values and right and wrong. I am therefore in agreement with Cools that, as she writes, moral rights theory “has always been derived (if indirectly at times) from the application of reason to observed facts about human beings.” Natural rights theory – derived from empirical observations and rational analysis – is the ground of the justification of our autonomous being. This is one reason why I think we need to abandon entirely the ‘is/ought’ meme that erects a wall separating science and philosophy, discouraging people from thinking how science can inform – and in some cases determine – human values. Scientists confronted with ethical issues should not say to themselves, “Well, this is where I hand the problem to the philosophers, because we scientists are not allowed to think about such issues with our empirical tools.” Rather, science and reason are inextricably intertwined, and we should employ them both in solving problems in all fields, from physics to ethics.
Michael Shermer, USA
Dear Editor: I was surprised to read that there is still a debate as to the source of supposed moral obligation. Amy Cools suggests (Issue 109) that science cannot tell us what to do because, as David Hume pointed out, ‘is’ does not imply ‘ought’. However, surely the same difficulty applies to philosophical strictures. Socrates told us that the good life – the one to which we ought to aspire – was one in which we strive to make both ourselves and those around us happier and better off. He told us that the only way to achieve this is to pursue wisdom and self-knowledge. Now it may be that being happier is very nice, but I’m not sure why that entails having a duty to try to produce happiness all around us. Neither am I sure that research shows that the pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge actually beats other ways of increasing the sum total of happiness.
By highlighting the numerous biases to which our thinking is subject, science is beginning to be able to tell us how our decisions can be arrived at in a more rational way. Science can also confirm, for example, that we have an innate tendency to cooperate and an inbuilt sense of empathy. Philosophy can tell us how to reason, and can encourage us to think more clearly. Neither philosophy nor science can tell us what we ought to do, though. Nor can I see how they can somehow be combined to produce what neither can produce on its own – a binding moral code. So in the absence of a divine being insisting on a particular type of action, there is no moral ‘ought’ or ‘should’. I may confuse my habitual way of thinking with a moral imperative, but ultimately what I do is my decision. How I try to achieve my aim is also my decision. The same is true at group and national level. All this explains why it is that so-called ‘moral codes’ change with time. We have seen the results of previous versions of these various codes, and have decided that they are wanting.
Jack Jones, Cardiff
Einstein A No-Go…
Dear Editor: I have nothing but the utmost respect for Albert Einstein and his contributions to physics in particular. Having said that, I don’t see how he – or Ching-Hung Woo in his article on him in PN 109 – could reconcile any comprehensible concept of morality with the kind of determinism that Einstein promoted. Assuming that Einstein was correct, then all of our so-called ‘choices’ are pre-determined, which would mean that we have no free-will or control over our actions and decisions. Choice is therefore an illusion, as Einstein is quoted as saying – kinda reminiscent of David Hume’s scepticism. Woo says that Hume was a favorite of Einstein’s, and he even adopted his ethics. Yet if Einstein had read more of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, he would have seen that the “necessary connexion” in all causal relations is also an illusion! According to Hume, we get an idea of this necessary connection after having experienced the “constant contiguity” between two events. Hume says – and I believe he is right – that there is no evidence to show that there really is necessary causal connection. Therefore, rather than free-will being an illusion, it is determinism that is the illusion.
Yet let us assume for a moment that Einstein was correct in supposing that people have no free will/choice, in how they act. This idea has serious consequences for morality. For how can we logically say that someone was acting morally ‘badly’ or ‘well’, when in fact they had no other choice? How can we hold that person morally culpable, or heap praise on them? The consequences of determinism are clear: all notions of moral responsibility are utterly annihilated if determinism is true. In order for people to be held morally responsible for any action, they must have free will. Otherwise, there can’t be any moral system.
Tracey Braverman, Brooklyn NY
Dear Editor: Some might say I have no choice but to write this letter, but I’m choosing to write it anyway! Ching-Hung Woo describes Einstein believing that there’s no free will. Then we are told Einstein had deep regrets about his participation in the Allied war effort; that he wrote a letter to another proclaiming “We are guilty!” about his part in the bomb. But what possible sense is to be made of ‘regret’ or ‘being guilty’ if one denies free will?
David Wright, Sacramento CA
A Beautiful Mind
Dear Editor: Sir Alistair MacFarlane, in his informative and enjoyable article in Issue 109 about Nelson Goodman as a “philosopher who spoke the languages of art,” makes the observation that “nourish[ing] our humanity… means we must continue to embrace and support art in all its forms.” I absolutely agree. To Sir Alistair’s point, I would add there are many manifestations of art and beauty, loosely including the following: turns of phrase, images of galaxies and supernovas, varieties of animals and plants, metaphors, paintings, breakthrough technologies, aurora borealis, humor, dance, equations, love, fantasies, theater, sculpture, night skies, landscapes, athletics, architecture, physical pleasure, literature, oceans, poems, chemical formulas, food presentation and taste, music, silence, geometry, engineered structures, language, colors, laughter, computer code, altruism, photography, imagination… and many others. I would further suggest that among these, some are appreciated on a global scale, by everyone; others are appreciated only through cultures that layer on their complexity over the course of history; others are appreciated through people’s individual lenses, largely apart from cultural or societal circumstances; and yet others are regarded as examples of beauty by only or mostly insiders who are somehow invested in them, through education, life experience, or other personal conditions. Yet all manifestations are equally legitimate, and none crowds out any of the others.
By way of a side note, one might argue that heading the pack among the myriad manifestations of beauty is personhood. The emergence of personhood is extraordinary: not in the sense of a product of divine design, but rather in the sense of human life epitomizing consciousness and intelligence. Accordingly, only through people do the manifestations of beauty I mentioned become possible. The aesthetic value of the wide-ranging examples of beauty listed rests on the individual, too: what one person deems pleasant, others may indifferently shrug their shoulders at or even recoil from. Beauty in art depends on the source of the stimulation being experienced, as influenced by the cypher of the person’s senses and the intervening medium. These potential states of beauty need to be perceived through human consciousness in order to become real. Sir Alistair likewise takes the subject full circle.
Keith Tidman, Maryland
Dear Editor: I’m appreciative of the effort put into the thoughtful replies some have given to my article ‘Atheism on Trial’ (Issue 109). At the same time, I confess to a slight disappointment that I have been misread as merely rehearsing the Theism-Atheism debates of the past.
Perhaps the prevalence of that traditional sort of debate in the press generally is to blame. Or perhaps my use of the ‘trial’ metaphor was the problem, since it might lead readers to infer I was presenting Theism as the prosecutor. But I was not. Readers can note that I really said nothing in explicit defense of Theism. Rather, my intent was to focus on Atheism itself, and to understand it purely on its own terms. If there was a prosecutor, it was reason itself.
Concisely stated, the central question raised by my essay was this: can Atheists meet the epistemic standards they have claimed for themselves? For today’s pop Atheists generally choose to self-present as though they were advancing a view that is rational, evidentiary, necessary and universal. My article maintains that it is none of these things, and shows why.
For this reason, responses about angels, Heaven, omniscience, the problem of evil … are not illuminating. They would be relevant to a defense or attack referring to Theism. But it seems clear to me that their recycling here does nothing to deliver Atheism, since it is Atheism’s own standards and claims that Atheism cannot meet … not those advanced from Theism. The rational problems with Atheism are intrinsic, and would exist even if alternatives like Theism, Deism, Polytheism, Animism and Agnosticism did not exist. Atheism itself is irrational.
Upon reflection, I suppose I might have done better to have titled my article something like, ‘Atheism Against Atheism’, or ‘How Atheist Reasoning Defeats Atheism’. Inelegant, perhaps; but more accurate. Such titles capture the important point: no criticisms of Theism can save Atheism if its defeat is achieved strictly on the basis of Atheism’s own self-declared claims – which in my article, it is.
If this clarification helps, perhaps I may continue to hope to see someone attempt rational defense of Atheism on its own terms sometime in the future. I would like to see that.
Dr Stephen Anderson, Ontario