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News: February/March 2017

Irish President calls for more philosophy in schools • Judge rules on chimpanzee rights • Derek Parfit and Zygmunt Bauman dead — News reports by Anja Steinbauer and Katy Baker

Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

The philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Year’s Day, aged 74. Parfit is best known for using imaginative thought experiments in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons to show problems with the concept of personal identity. One thought experiment looks at what might happen if you were to step into a teletransporter. In this device, your body is first scanned atom-by-atom and then completely destroyed. But the information is transmitted somewhere else, say to a corresponding teleportation device on Mars, where you are exactly recreated using local materials. Some people might see this simply as a way of travelling at vast speeds; the person on Mars who is just like you, is so because they are you. Not so, says Parfit. To explain he asks us to imagine that you go into the device again, except this time it malfunctions. You appear on Mars as normal, but the device on Earth fails to destroy your body and it now seems as if there are two of you. This also opens up the possibility of there being hundreds of replicas of you, with no way for us to say which is the ‘real’ you. Each shares all your memories, which is a blow to the idea that memory anchors identity. Parfit aims to show that any time we try to produce a criterion for personal identity, it fails and what matters instead is the relation of mental continuity and connectedness.

Reasons and Persons focused on personal identity, rationality and ethics. Later Parfit continued to write on ethics in On What Matters, an objective theory of ethics that involved a synthesis of three major ethical theories (Kantianism, consequentialism and contractarianism). The book became well known and much discussed while still circulating in manuscript form before it was finally published in 2011.

On the subject of his death Parfit wrote: “My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me.” (R&P, 281-82)

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

Zygmunt Bauman, a prolific Polish-born intellectual, has died at the age of 91 at his home in Leeds, England. Bauman’s work explored ideas about identity, consumerism and globalisation. He was a controversial figure in Poland for having served as an officer in a Stalinist-era military organisation, the Internal Security Corps, but gained a worldwide reputation as a versatile and humane interdisciplinary thinker.

Bauman wrote more than fifty books, all strongly philosophical in approach, including Modernity and the Holocaust, in which he described the Holocaust as an outcome of industrialisation and rationalised bureaucracy: “It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable.” Bauman’s concept of ‘liquid modernity’ was an attempt to account for what he believed to be a loss of identity in our contemporary world. Constant change means that individuals are without frames of reference or lasting human relationships, as Bauman described in publications such as Liquid Times and Liquid Modernity: “In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change.”

Teaching Philosophy in Ireland

Irish President Michael D. Higgins has done something very few politicians do: he has given the thumbs-up to the value of philosophy in schools. Referring to it as a “path to a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture,” Higgins and his wife Sabina, a philosophy graduate, have called for the expansion of the curriculum to include philosophy. “The teaching of philosophy,” Higgins said in November, “is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

Irish 12 to 16-year-olds now have the option of studying philosophy and educators are also exploring the possibility of establishing philosophy for children as a subject within primary schools.

Textbook Troubles

In Morocco a new school textbook caused a stir by describing philosophy as a perversion and blasphemy. A passage in Manar At-Tarbia Al-Islamiya, intended for first year baccalaureate students, refers to philosophy as “a production of human thought that is contrary to Islam” and as “the essence of degeneration.” Philosophy teachers reacted with outrage and organized protest sit-ins, according to moroccoworldnews.com. The Education Ministry defended the book, saying that the controversial passage was intended as part of a reasoning exercise.

Animal Persons

A judge in Argentina has ruled that a chimpanzee has rights under the law. The judge consequently ordered Cecilia the chimpanzee to be released from Mendoza Zoo, where she lived without a companion. The Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) had filed the case, arguing that the conditions of Cecilia’s confinement were damaging to her health.

This is an historic judgement in recognising the rights of apes. AFADA had previously sought a court ruling to release Sandra the orangutan from Buenos Aires Zoo, arguing that she was a ‘non-human person’ due to her advanced mental abilities. This reasoning, and therefore the potential status of ‘non-human personhood’ would arguably extend not only to other great apes (orangutans, gorillas and bonobos), but also to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). Professor Thomas I. White of Loyola Marymount University explains: “The scientific evidence is so strong for the intellectual and emotional sophistication of dolphins that there simply is no question that they are ‘nonhuman persons’ who deserve respect as individuals.”

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