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Letters

Voting For Self-Destruction • Contractual Obligations For Life • More Unfeasible Election Conditions • Co-operative Disagreement • The Trolley Trundles On • In Sight Of The Self • Eternal Fact-Straightening

Voting For Self-Destruction

Dear Editor: Your Editorial in Issue 116 concluded that in the long term, the communal view of ordinary people should be trusted. I wouldn’t disagree with that. But this is not the ‘Five Year Democracy’ model of politics we and other so-called ‘democratic’ countries have adopted. Take, for example, the environment. The very future of our world depends on our solving a host of environmental issues. One of those is overuse of the world’s resources. If resource consumption continues at current rates the Earth will finally become a barren desert and a poisoned sea. Concerted international action to stop this is needed now. And ‘Now means Now!’

But the good sense of the general population will take a lot longer than five years to show. What politician, knowing they must go to the polls within that time-scale, is going to tell people that they must stop using their cars, buying things they don’t need, and switching the heating on, instead of wearing more jumpers? Our economy is based on a capitalist system which needs ever-increasing use of the world’s resources to generate growth, jobs and profits. What politicians are going to tell companies more powerful than their governments that they must stop producing junk and over-packaging it, chopping down forests to produce burgers and oil, and turning mineral-rich countries into big holes in the ground?

I’m usually quite an optimistic soul, but not in this case. Our politicians can make a few of the right noises and sit through conferences at Kyoto and Copenhagen. But any of them who seriously suggested to the voters that they must stop consuming resources at anything like the level we do now would not get a sniff of the benches at Westminster or seats at the Senate in Washington.

Meurig Parri, Caerdydd


Contractual Obligations For Life

Dear Editor: In Issue 116, Stephen Faison argues that adherents of a social contract must provide the means to food, clothing and shelter, since “the contract recognizes that the individual possesses a natural right to survive.” Yet how can a contract, a literal or figurative piece of paper, recognize anything? Faison must mean that individuals recognize that each individual possesses a natural right to survive. But from where does this recognition arrive? In a state of nature, individuals are concerned only with their own self-interests and will do whatever necessary to advance those interests, including attacking others. If individuals recognize the natural rights of other individuals, they wouldn’t attack one another and wouldn’t be in a state of nature in the first place. Rather, individuals in a hypothetical state of nature would agree to a social contract simply because that contract would advance their interests by allowing them to live without constant threat of attack. Any claims about ‘natural rights’ are unnecessary.

Faison goes on to explain that the state must furnish food, clothing and shelter for all its individuals as though the state were some nebulous entity external to the contractors. But the state is merely the legal arrangement to which individuals agree when they enter into a social contract. It’s nothing more than a collection of individuals, so Faison’s claim amounts to saying that some individuals must furnish food, clothing and shelter for other individuals.

Consider a hypothetical state of nature where A is in a position of advantage relative to B and C by virtue of A’s superior natural abilities or material possessions. A could kill or steal from B or C, but B and C are strong enough together to kill or steal from A. A, B and C all have reason to enter into a social contract in which each of them agrees to refrain from attacking any other party. But suppose B and C make the additional demand that A furnish them with food, clothing and shelter as part of the contract. At best, this looks like a bad deal for A, one he would never accept without coercion. At worst, it seems like B and C are extorting A by agreeing not to attack him so long as he provides them food, clothing and shelter.

There are arguments for equitable distribution of basic goods, including John Rawls’ social contract theory incorporating a ‘veil of ignorance’; but I’m not convinced that Faison is on the right track with his ‘license to steal’.

Greg Hickey, Chicago


Dear Editor: I’ve recently discovered Philosophy Now and I love it. But I am struggling with Faison’s article, ‘The Social Contract: A License to Steal’: I am constantly distracted by the use of the terms ‘he’ and ‘man’ in contexts that are clearly intended to be gender-neutral. It’s particularly galling given that the article addresses the state’s responsibility to protect citizens, yet it is so often women (and their children) whom the state fails to protect. Surely authors could be advised that sexist language is unacceptable in Philosophy Now; and that if a submitted manuscript includes sexist language, its author will be asked to correct it?

Virginia Simpson-Young, New South Wales


More Unfeasible Election Conditions

Dear Editor: I’d like to address how Lorenzo Capitani wants to count votes in his article ‘Informed Voting’ in Issue 116. Capitani argues that those with particular experience within a specific topic should have their vote on that topic count more than a layperson. For example, a policeman’s vote would count more than mine concerning issue of criminal justice.

This sounds reasonable, but why should we take working within a profession to be a guarantee of the quality of that person’s vote? It is false to think that policemen automatically have a better understanding of racial discrimination being committed by police officers. An officer can ignore these issues, even after being thoroughly educated about them. They may say they don’t believe it’s happening and carry on their job in wanton ignorance. This can be said of any professional who decides that a particular problem doesn’t exist within their profession, e.g. mine safety, or medical malpractice.

In addition, the idea that votes should be counted according to the theme does not sound feasible. There is too much known overlay among different issues, not to mention the unknown overlay. Voters, and those who will calculate their votes, may not realize that a particular issue will have further-reaching aspects, in which others who have vital knowledge should have been part of the calculation process. For example, if the issue is overfishing, it would be obvious to have the votes of fishermen count more than others, but it may not be obvious that local psychiatrists should have their votes enhanced too, since less work for the fisherman may lead to a diminished sense of worth, affecting their families.

Lastly, in most representative systems, we do not vote directly on issues, but rather vote to elect those to make those decisions. For this idea of Capitani’s to work, each representative would need to be a jack-of-all-trades to be able to vote rightly and fairly.

K.C. Warble III, South Carolina


Dear Editor: I read with great interest Lorenzo Capitani’s idea of voting rights based on merit. I have been thinking this very idea for quite some time, and seeing your article allowed me to look at the idea from a different perspective. I was initially in favour of a test for a vote, but now I’d like to argue against the proposal.

Humans are naturally self-serving, and politics is no different. If only those with a direct, active interest in the topic under debate may vote, votes will largely be driven by self-interest, to the detriment of those more indirectly affected by the issue. Take the example of a vote on whether factories should be forced to reduce carbon emissions. Factories would have to find better ways of reducing fuel consumption. They might invest more in renewable energy and spend less on oil. If enough factories follow this plan, there would then be a surplus of oil, driving the price down. The economies of oil-exporting countries may shrink due to this devaluation. It is not impossible (it has already happened) that such a declining economy would seek to divert attention away from the poor economy by focusing on showcasing its foreign policy strength… As can be seen, a snowball effect is created.

Also, what constitutes ‘knowledge of the issue’? Does being a businessman, investor, or economist suffice to have enough knowledge of the above example? How deep would the knowledge have to be in order for it to be sufficient? Is a one week course enough to vote on X? Or perhaps a doctorate is needed to truly grasp a complex situation. If the vote was whether or not to make Shakespeare mandatory for schoolchildren, who would get a say in that?

In theory it seems logical that the best-informed should govern society. Yet a single-subject test might dangerously narrow political debate and muffle the expression of genuine concerns. Misguided though the uninformed vote may be, it is still a better indicator of the general will of the people. Take Brexit; the ‘leave’ side won, in spite of economists’ warning that it would have a negative impact on the British economy. If only people who had passed a politics and economics test could vote then Brexit would have been rejected. Yet it is likely that leave voters had other concerns on their minds that, for them, outweighed the likely economic damage. The world isn’t split into different and separate compartments, where a certain thing can be done and then one can move on to the next; it is human nature to want to give order to the world, but in reality everything is interrelated, whether obvious or not. For this reason, and the reason previously stated, I don’t think that it is in the interest of society to impose a test in order to be eligible to vote.

David Conroy, by email


Dear Editor: I find Lorenzo Capitani’s suggested methods for enhancing political decision-making disturbing on two counts. First, his proposals are elitist and so anti-democratic. Second, there are serious issues about the delivery of his suggestion. I’ll concentrate on the second.

Capitani stresses the importance of knowledge in political decision-making. Knowledge is essential to that purpose, but knowledge cannot be sufficient: the facts require interpretation. Politics differs from subjects such as physics or driving theory, where answers can be assessed as being correct or incorrect. Certainly facts underpin political decisions; but the facts themselves must be augmented by interpretation. The ability to interpret facts in a rational manner is essential when making any decision, political or not. Skill in this could be assessed. However, a further step is required: the facts have to be weighted. Some people will arrive at weightings consistent with their synthesis of the facts; but others will not. The latter will be dominated by prejudice, possibly arising from political allegiance. Capitani does not explain how his system would overcome the influence of propaganda, nor does he inform us whether he would seek to assess the weightings a potential voter gives to the facts.

How, and importantly, by whom, are examiners to be chosen? One concern here is over the possibility of political patronage. A second is, to what extent would assessors allow those with political views different to their own to reach the required standard? Unless these two issues are addressed, Capitani’s examination system will work in favour of the establishment and exclude divergent thinking.

Further, what level of ability does Capitani require of those permitted to vote? As someone interested in many political fields, my knowledge is not to a consistent level across all, but I would not wish to be excluded from any decision which affects my country, region, or town. For some topics, my interest only develops when that field enters political debate. Would I have the time to acquire the necessary level of knowledge in time to pass the examination required to participate in the decision-making?

Michael Shaw, Huddersfield


Co-operative Disagreement

Dear Editor: I wanted to thank you for publishing Mary Midgley’s article ‘A Golden Manifesto’ in Issue 116 [and 117, Ed]. I am a young woman who’s recently returned to university to undertake a Masters degree and the article really resonated with me. I found it very valuable to read Midgley’s account of being in classes during the war where the men were invalids or conscientious objectors and less competitive than usual. This reminded me of undergraduate philosophy classes where the male students would be highly involved in discussions, whereas there were some female students who wouldn’t say anything at all, with little to no encouragement from tutors. As a woman I feel I have had to adopt a particularly aggressive discursive style to make myself heard. The article helped solidify some concerns I’ve been having about this. I hope to let myself be influenced by Midgley and her friends in adopting a more co-operative approach.

Ana Hine, Dundee


The Trolley Trundles On

Dear Editor: Let us call the person who comes upon the situation in Omid Panahi’s very good article, ‘Could There Be A Solution To The Trolley Problem?’ (Issue 116) the ‘Accidental Visitor’. In the original version, Visitor cannot stop the trolley, but she can control the switching mechanism of the tracks, thus enabling her to direct the trolley away from a track that will kill five people down a track that will kill one person. Normally, the moral question posed is: “Which alternative should Visitor take and why?” Another possibility, however, is for Visitor to do nothing. In that case, Visitor does not interfere in the fate of any of the six people involved. This involves a rather radical view of responsibility which we might call ‘Bystander Immunity’. The idea is that one is never responsible for a train of events that would occur in one’s absence anyway.

Admittedly, this is a truncated view of moral responsibility. Normally, it is thought that we should save another human being if possible, at least when there is little or no cost to ourselves. One should wade into the muddy water to save the drowning child, even if it involves ruining one’s clothes. To fail to do so is morally monstrous. Nevertheless, it might give us pause that in many countries, there would not be any criminal charge in the offing for one who stood by and simply allowed the child to drown – or simply let the trolley run over the five people on the track.

Another alternative is for Visitor to flip a coin: heads, the trolley goes on the track with one person; tails, the trolley continues on the track with five. The reasoning here is that each of the six people has an equal right to life. By flipping a coin to decide which track the trolley will roll down, the coin flip gives each of them a 50/50 chance of surviving, thus giving equal respect to the right to life of all six. For a discussion of this way of thinking, see: John M. Taurek, ‘Should the Numbers Count?, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1977).

Don E. Scheid, J.D., Ph.D., Winona State University, MN


Dear Editor: Ethical matters aside, a consideration relating to the Trolley Problem (Issue 116) is the question of legal liability. The relatives of the one worker you kill might well sue you for loss of earnings, perhaps more. The five workers on the other track would be unlikely to testify in your defence since they are apparently deaf and unaware that they have been saved.

Derrick Grover, West Sussex


In Sight Of The Self

Dear Editor: Thank you for Alisa Anokhina’s article on relieving depression through searching for authenticity (Issue 115). I’ve often felt that depression (including my own) is connected to a loss of authenticity resulting in a severe loss of self. I’ve never before viewed this connection in existentialist terms, but I can now see how this philosophy suggests a solution to, not just a relief from, depression. The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe described depression as a prison, and it certainly does feel like that. She describes this imprisonment as a life in which one’s own values cannot be expressed or provide autonomy for that person. It takes a lot of courage to define one’s own values and act in a way that is consistent with them, so shaping ourselves, because this often affects other people. But depression does seem to be a situation in which we have become shapeless – without choices – and the best treatment would be help with regaining and strengthening the person we want to be.

However I’m not clear about Alisa’s advocacy of medication. Depression can be, and often is, devastating, because the loss of self is devastating, and medication cannot restore that loss of self. Regaining the self requires action and love and a sight of a possible future. This cannot be gained medically, it can only be lived. And I think that with psychological (existential) strengthening, a ‘depressed brain’ can achieve great things.

Pamela White, Nottingham


Eternal Fact-Straightening

Dear Editor: In his interview with Stanley Fish (Issue 116), Scott Parker was in error in inserting that in Kansas, “creationism is taught in schools as an alternative theory to evolution.” He was presumably thinking of actions taken by the state board of education in 1999 and again in 2005 to compromise the treatment of evolution in the state science standards. Both actions were subsequently reversed; moreover, neither involved requiring or even allowing teachers in the state’s public schools to present creationism as scientifically credible. Such a requirement or allowance would be unconstitutional, as established by the Supreme Court in its decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). To be sure, creationists have not been idle in their attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution in the US, but their recent efforts have been aimed at misrepresenting evolution as scientifically controversial. Dismayingly, the Supreme Court’s decision notwithstanding, creationism is routinely taught in US public schools.

Glenn Branch, National Center for Science, Education, Oakland, California


Dear Editor: In reply to Bill Meacham’s letter in Issue 116 expressing exasperation over the resolution of the contradiction in baseball’s rules, look at Rule 7.08(e) as quoted in the story of the professor: “Any player is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base.” That was the rule before the correction. Now read Rule 7.08(e) in rule books subsequent to the correction (mine is the 2013 edition): “Any runner is out when he or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base.” The corrected version makes the runner safe in the event of a tie; the old version makes the runner out in the event of a tie. The new version makes the rule consistent with the rule for the batter-runner at first base.

Chris Christensen, Portland, Oregon

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