You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!


Print Print

Email Email

Email Discuss

Facebook Twitter Reddit Google+
StumbleUpon Pinterest Delicious Digg


The Wrongs & Rights of Rights • Now Here This, Man • Terrestrial Communications • Insider Insight

The Wrongs & Rights of Rights

Dear Editor: Surely the woman who borrowed $5 from Tim Dare in Issue 118 should repay it to him on his request not primarily because she had contracted a duty to do so, but because the $5 is his money? His ownership rests upon a foundational belief in our society that human beings can permanently possess certain material objects (including sums of money) for as long as they wish to do so, providing that no other has a better title to their possession. The fact that Tim and the woman entered into an informal contract for her temporary holding and return of the $5 was based on a recognition of that foundational belief and its social implementation. This may suggest that in any property-owing society (that is, almost all human societies), ownership is an intrinsic, and therefore human, right, which is thus not based on a convention – although it may be listed in a Convention.

John Kissane, Luton

Dear Editor: The whole concept of human rights is a bit of a problem. In the absence of a God laying down the law, we are left trying to decide what to base them on. You may be surprised to learn that Sir Hersch Lauterpacht QC, the eminent British lawyer and a leading figure in the drive to create a post-war charter of human rights, based his reasoning to a very large extent upon ‘natural law’, a somewhat vague concept, as Lauterpacht himself seemed to accept. He said in his 1946 essay ‘The Grotian Tradition in International Law’: “The law of nature has been rightly exposed to the charge of vagueness and arbitrariness. But the uncertainty of the ‘higher’ law is preferable to the arbitrariness and insolence of naked force.” In other words, although natural law has no intrinsic basis, he thought it better than the alternative. Well, he writes elsewhere, “the binding force… of international law… is based on the law of nature as expressive of the social nature of man.” So human rights law, as a part of international law, reflects how we behave as social beings. Of course this is by no means always and everywhere the same; and yet we are asked by rights promoters to accept that the definition(s) we have of human rights are universally applicable, not contingent; that those who wrote the charters in the late Forties and early Fifties had it right and everyone opposed to them has it wrong. But those who drafted and approved the charters were a relatively small group of lawyers and politicians, and hardly representative of humanity as a whole. So what confidence can we have in their decisions as to how to reflect human ‘social nature’? Perhaps the idea of a basis in natural law is wrong after all. Instead, maybe we need to look at what actually gave rise to the wish to codify human rights.

The idea of human rights took off as a result of the heinous actions of the Nazis and the Japanese during World War 2. The Nazi Party had altered German law to enable the horrors of that period to be carried out lawfully. And so, after the war, there was a desire to say that complying with the law of a state could not be used as justification for barbaric acts: the law itself had to be judged against a higher standard – an internationally accepted standard of how we should act. Individuals were therefore to be held to account for their willingness to blindly follow unjust law. ‘Just following orders’ was no longer an excuse.

In the light of what had occurred, it was relatively clear what principles might diminish the chance of it happening again. And so we have the creation of the Twentieth Century concept of human rights: actually a pragmatic attempt to impose at least some semblance of control upon would-be dictators, based on the vivid experience of those engaged in the Nuremberg trials of what horrors unchecked power can produce.

Paul Buckingham, France

Dear Editor: Dr Jesse Tomalty opens a Pandora’s Box on the elusive, not to say ephemeral, subjects of internet access and human rights in Issue 118. Her well-balanced piece treads a suitably careful pathway. Human rights imply a moral code, and both notions are indefinite. Dr Tomalty queries the ‘fundamental’ nature of access to the internet. In its short history, the internet has evolved from being a toy at which to marvel, to its current status as a must-have in order to engage with Twenty-First Century life. As civilised life advances, technology, exponential population increases and rapid depletion of natural resources are reinforcing the truly fundamental nature of electronic communication in accessing information. It seems that the distinction between natural and legal human rights should evolve overtime. Yet whatever we call moral obligations to our fellow man/woman, be they ‘rights’, ‘compassion’ or ‘empathy’, it is difficult to imagine that deprivation of internet access would not now be a major threat to ‘being human’. But, it depends upon what you mean by ‘human’! When we lived in caves, there may have been no moral consciousness, and, therefore, no notion of ‘natural human rights’. But the average cave-dweller would have been eminently justified in claiming a natural human right to carry and use a substantial club, because without it he would not enjoy the right to life nor to liberty and security. Indeed, both his cave and his club would have been natural human rights ‘simply in virtue of his being human’. Without them, he would die.

Cedric Richmond, Nottingham

Now Here This, Man

Dear Nick Inman: When I read your article, ‘Nowhere Men’ in Issue 117 I was struck by the phrase, “I have no direct access to what goes on in your mind.” You follow this by arguing that you do have direct access to what goes on in your own mind. I do not follow. I’m quite certain that there are things in your mind to which you do not have direct access, for example, the commands to tell your heart to beat or lungs to inhale. And unless you are unique, I doubt you have access to the series of commands you send your arm to reach out for a glass of water. I would posit in response to your concept of ‘direct access’ that you have only ‘indirect’ access: you can ask yourself about what you’re thinking, and it turns out that you can (internally) only express a tiny portion of that which you think about. So to my way of thinking (and by long extension), this concept of querying one’s self is not really distinguishable from querying someone else.

At this point, it seems like the hinge of your argument collapses. So, I am asking two questions here: (1) Am I correct in asserting that the ‘direct’ access is, indeed, the hinge of your argument, and (2) Have I at least given you pause to consider that the concept of ‘direct’ access is far less credible than you asserted in your article? Assuming the former but not the latter, suppose that at some point in the future it was possible read someone else’s brain (I don’t care how), would that then remove the obstacle of ‘direct’? We already can read someone else’s brain in terms of what emotions that person is experiencing, and I think that it’s enough to reasonably posit that such a thing is possible.

William Fishburne

Dear William: First of all, thank you for writing. I wouldn’t want my argument to get away without being challenged. But I’ll tell you how I see things.

I can’t find the words you quote, but ‘I’ am my mind-body, so it is misleading to say that ‘I’ have ‘access’ to my mind as if it were separate from the ‘I’. If I wrote that, I stand corrected on a misuse of words. I don’t think it much matters if I do not have ‘access’ to the unconscious processes (i.e., that I am unaware of them). I’m not sure they are activities of mind anyway. They are just things that happen within me. I think of the body as a distributed system: the cells of my nervous system in control of my arm have their own assignments to be getting on with while my mind is imagining philosophical arguments. I have learned to be a good manager: I have delegated duties.

I don’t remember using the word ‘access’, so I certainly wouldn’t call that a succeed/fail lynchpin. What I thought I was saying is that the ‘subjective/objective’, or ‘interior-intangible-inexpressible’ vs ‘exterior-tangible-describable-categorisable-verifiable’ are entirely different things, and do not connect in any way that we can study with certainty. I assert that you cannot know what is really going on in my brain-mind and I cannot know what is going on in yours.

As for emotions, are you saying that a person with years of medical training using a lot of technology can see what I experience as fear and know that that fear means the same thing to me as it does to him/her? Can the neuroscientist define anger, or confidence or love? (Ye gods: I can’t even define that one myself after decades of practice! How dare anyone else tell me whether I am in love or not and how!) These ‘brain-reading’ experiments depend, of course, on the subjects knowing that they are in love and being honest about it. But is an article in Nature a better description of love than that offered by John Donne? That’s a lot of assumptions being made on the basis of someone wearing a white coat and having a degree on the wall, and a lot of indirect methodology. What he is trying to see may have no connection to the inner experience of love, fear. Isn’t he in fact seeing the traces of emotion, not the emotion itself? Aren’t people who carry out such experiments making the assumption that they already know personally about being a human being? And I find it hard to separate the I from, say, my anger. It is a state that goes intimately with my I. Also, in my experience emotions tend to come as complex lumps: what does anger mixed with love and just a pinch of regret and resentment look like in brain activity? Are we going to see a particular pattern of the brain for such a cocktail, and are you going to be able to correctly identify it (and could you do it if you, the scientist, had never experienced regret?) I don’t even see what use such approaches are to anyone. For me, there is more than a far cry from locating anger to seeing thinking: it is a chasm. I would make no assumptions at all about the future because we may get something else. The history of the future often shows us that we didn’t get where we thought were going. Your hope that we will one day be able to read thoughts is just that, a hope.

But here is a test. Do you really believe that one day they will invent an instrument that can be inserted between one human being and another that will allow the observer to know exactly what I mean when I think ‘fish’, given that I may be thinking simultaneously and amorphously of (1) the fish in the pond, with aesthetic delight tinged with a stirring of guilt and worry that I haven’t fed them; and spontaneously a sneaking, irrelevant longing to go and do some gardening; (2) it would be nice to have fish for dinner (taste buds become active so here we have a combination of mental and physiological reaction): have we got any chips or do I need to go the supermarket? (new parallel thought starts shopping list); (3) I found a drawing of a fish I did 20 years ago and it brings mixed feelings that I cannot put into words; (4) an abstract thought of ‘fishness’; Etc? All that is free-form, fleeting. I am also in there: my ‘fish’ is connected to me. Add to which my inner sensations of fishness may be different in the waiting room to those I have in the lab when all the equipment is hooked up. Unless you or Google will somehow be able to monitor me real in time and train an interpreter in exactly how to be me (will he not have had to live all the things that I have lived?)… But now I think you’re getting further and further from credibility. However good the medium you use, won’t its use depend on you being about to interpret my thought of fish in exactly the same way as me, given that the time and conditions will not be the same? Will we even ever agree on the colour of the fish and how to define it? I find that all too much to believe.

Nick Inman, Larreule, France

Dear Editor: One doesn’t need to argue for a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit’ to appreciate that some aspects of Inman’s argument have validity, without religious connotations. In particular, there are two aspects of one’s self: one is subjective and uniquely known only to you; another is objective and known to everyone you interact with. But I think the most pertinent point he makes is that it is only through intelligent conscious entities like us that the Universe has any meaning at all. In answer to the oft-asked question, Why is there something rather than nothing? I say that without consciousness there might as well be nothing. Because consciousness is so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted in our everyday lives we tend not to consider its essential role in providing reality. When you cease to be conscious, there is certainly nothing for you. We need both an objective world and subjective consciousness for reality to become manifest.

Paul P Mealing, Melbourne

Dear Editor: Eugene Franklin’s letter in PN 118 accuses the piece by Nick Inman of “unjustifiably dismissing the complexity that material processes are capable of, in favour of the preferred explanation that human beings transcend physics.” It’s true that this has never been proven but what could such a proof look like? And it doesn’t follow from this lack of proof that complex material processes are our inner world. As Mary Midgley points out in the same page, the idea of matter itself is just as awkward as the idea of immateriality. So even more awkward is the idea of complex material processes creating our inner world. Far more awkward is the idea of complex material processes being able to fool themselves that they are immaterial processes that transcend physics. A believer in only material processes would have to explain how a brain can fool itself into believing that it transcends physics, and moreover explain what the purpose is of a brain fooling itself in this way. So there is no proof either way. I am of the strong belief that any proof is, as yet, way beyond us. But my brain is certainly fooling me!

Pamela White, Nottingham

Terrestrial Communications

Dear Editor: We are grateful for Martin Jenkins’s comments in Issue 118 Letters on our article in Issue 116, and seek, if possible, to clarity.

We agree with him that the concept ‘what is it like to be’ for example, a bat, is problematic. In order to make some progress we did assume that human beings do have at least some sense of what it is like to be another human being. Although we do not know what it is like to specifically be Martin Jenkins, the fact that he was able to read our article and make pertinent comments, and that we are able to (hopefully) rationally respond indicates a degree of ‘knowing’ each other. We suggest our shared comprehension at this intellectual level is absent between Homo sapiens and any other known species.

Interspecies communication, using sign language for example, has led to fascinating insights, and we are certainly moved by the often deep emotional rapport between dogs and their owners. But we think this differs hugely from the ability to philosophise together. Our title ‘Will We Ever Philosophise with ET?’ was intended to emphasis the issue of communication at this higher level.

We agree with Martin that “large brains do not necessarily imply a philosophising intelligence.” Indeed, this is a plank in our own argument that even if aliens have evolved large brains, we are unlikely to philosophise with them unless they are also Homo sapiens or virtually identical. Dolphins have larger brains than humans do. In the Caribbean in the 1960s, NASA funded a project whose principal researcher was the medical practitioner, neuroscientist and philosopher Dr John C. Lilly (1915-2001). Experiments recorded that a dolphin could mimic English using his blowhole; but this communication fell short of philosophizing. With hindsight, that presumption of ability to communicate using English seems terribly anthropocentric. We note Martin’s confident optimism in asserting the basic needs of unknown aliens, and the idea of trading food for the plans of a warp drive is attractive. However, our food may be useless or poisonous to ET, who may not need food as we know it. The proposed barter does seem anthropomorphic to us.

Malcolm E. Brown, Beccles

Steve Hubbard, Great Yarmouth

Insider Insight

Dear Editor: I was arrested for murder when I was eighteen and am now a little over ten years into a forty-five year sentence. That being said, I greatly admired and appreciated Dahlian Kirby’s article, ‘Philosophy For The Brave’, and her compassion for those of us who are suffering in prison. Her understanding and insights concerning some of the causes of our psychological distress are well founded.

I’ve been studying philosophy and psychology for several years but haven’t had the opportunity to explore existentialism until I received Issue 115 of Philosophy Now. This happened to correspond with Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning coming into my possession. I was amazed at how pertinent they both were to my situation and the personal and collective growth I’ve experienced. While I only recently came to realize it, I and others I know have long engaged in an existential dialogue as a means of coping with our circumstances. I haven’t ever been in counseling; my therapy has been philosophical discussion and debate amongst a few close friends with whom I have been able to open up and delve into my life and life in general. We have even gone as far as to develop our own philosophy. When I read the existentialism issue of Philosophy Now I was surprised to find that what we created is essentially an existential philosophy, although there are some core differences, such as a lack of nihilism on our part. [Try Colin Wilson’s existentialism then, Ed.]

Similarly, the psychological reactions observed by Frankl in response to concentration camp life, and the phases he describes, namely shock; apathy; and despondency, I found to be identical to those we experience and exhibit in prison. The physical conditions we endure range in severity, but all prisons (at least in the U.S.) are designed to facilitate subtle and overt psychological torture: that is, they are designed to strip us of any sense of freedom or responsibility, to ourselves or others, and to devalue such concepts. Because many of us are serving decades-long sentences, or our ‘natural life’, dying in prison is a real possibility/fear and creates both conscious and unconscious denial of this fate, and in turn psychological and existential rebellion against it in an attempt to maintain our sanity and humanity. We probably experience the absurd more tangibly than most.

My cellmate recently asked me what I thought is the reason so many in prison are drawn to philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences. I believe, like Kirby, that for those inclined it enables deep self-exploration, but also a way to explore morality, one’s place in the world, the meaning of life, and ultimately answer the question, ‘Where do I go from here?’ Therein lies the seed of authenticity, for individually and collectively these inquiries can lead to meaningfulness.

Unfortunately, there are far too few Dahlian Kirbys in the world, and we receive little or no institutional support in this area. Many thanks to her for writing the article, and thank you for publishing it.

Clifford L. Powers, Western Illinois Correctional Center


This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.