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Fat is an Ethical Issue • Life, Language & Logic • Animal Rights & Wrongs • Articles of Art • Subject to Ethical Criticism • Thinking about Tallis • More Women Philosophers Now! • No Microbe Rights Now! • Cynical Remarks

Fat is an Ethical Issue

Dear Editor: In her article on ‘The Ethics of Fat Shaming’ (Issue 144), Charlotte Curran tries to prove that judging people’s fatness is immoral. We live in a time when we overconsume, producing tons of poor quality food in ways that are harmful to the planet. Therefore, everyone should be conscious about the amount and quality of food they eat, and contribute to more sustainable living by controlling how and what they eat. And though fatness can stem from health issues, it is also undeniable that there are many people who are indeed ‘lazy’, or ‘don’t have self-control’ with eating. A good example are children who don’t think about their diet.

I remember sitting in the London tube when two seriously obese young women walked into the carriage, each carrying a massive bag from McDonald’s. They ate two burgers before we reached the next station! Without pressure from family, friends, society, many people would not even try to face the problem of bad eating. Moreover, there is a range of scientific evidence that eating well improves mental well-being and helps in fighting health problems. Believing that people can often find in themselves enough motivation without any social pressure to change their way of living sounds naïve to me.

Looking at the younger generation in London, I can hardly see anyone who in the times I grew up (thirty years ago), would have been described as ‘slim’. The paradigm of fitness has changed: not many adults these days resemble the standard anatomical representation of a human body from the 1990s. Putting aside aesthetics and health, we are witnessing this planet dying, so sustainable eating should be a priority. The only way to achieve that is through growing social pressure.

Hannah Zalewsky, London

Dear Editor: An African chief once said to Rita Hayworth, “Madam, if you were fat and black, you would be irresistible!” Local culture determines the body shape admired. Some fat people are energetic and public-spirited high achievers. Also, obesity is not always a choice, as some fat people feel hunger more than thin people, may have a lower metabolic rate, and may unconsciously make fewer movements. However, obesity has increased lately. Prepared foods are full of fat, sugar, and salt to make them tastier, and modern inventions encourage us to burn fewer calories as we move less. Unfortunately, obesity causes premature disability and death. Therefore health care professionals and governments have a duty to combat it, without in any way ‘shaming’ or denigrating fat people.

Allen Shaw, Leeds

Life, Language & Logic

Dear Editor: I note that the writers of the piece on ‘Abortion and Artificial Wombs’ in Issue 144 use the term ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘ pregnant women’. I applaud the use of gender neutral language in a gender neutral situation, but there is nothing gender neutral about pregnancy.

Lesley Greaves, Warminster, Wiltshire

Dear Editor: I thought Lee and Bidoli’s ‘Abortion and Artificial Wombs’ in Issue 144 was on the far-fetched side when it came to full ectogenesis (full pregnancy in vats). To be fair, they did admit this. However, their article reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had on abortion that to date nobody I’ve asked has refuted, although they’ve disagreed: If a person claims they can do what they want with their own body – ‘respect for bodily autonomy’ – then surely they must afford that right to everybody. Although foetuses are dependent on their mothers’ bodies, it doesn’t seem that they are their mothers’ bodies. Consequently the ‘autonomy’ argument for aborting a foetus doesn’t stand, because the right isn’t afforded to the foetus, while claiming it for oneself.

Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire

Animal Rights & Wrongs

Dear Editor: In Issue 144 there was a discussion about animal rights. For my money, one of the best ways of evaluating the correct approach to an issue is to see how its moral and practical aspects balance. If we really put animals on the same moral level as humans, then the implication is that we should spend as much money, time and emotional energy on what we perceive to be their needs as we do for humans. This would include pursuing legal cases to do with alleged mistreatment; and appointing social workers and solicitors for every few thousand of at least those species we consider complex enough to feel distress. This is impractical, so a general principle that it is wrong to harm or kill animals without good cause has to stand in it for it. It is not always honoured in practice, nor is there a universally-agreed definition of what constitutes ‘good cause’, but that’s equally the case with humans.

The principal bone of contention is vegetarianism. One could defend killing animals for food on the grounds that not every human’s metabolism is the same, and many could not switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet without medical problems, whether physical or psychological (possibly arising from lack of contentment). Those who have become veg(etari)ans for moral reasons are fortunate in that their ethical convictions coincide with their ability to make the dietary changes.

Otherwise, even if animals can’t morally be placed in quite the same category as humans, we nonetheless maintain, correctly, that it is an evil thing to torment them for pleasure. Speaking as a Christian, I would say an animal, not having done anything wrong, is never barred from going to Heaven, whereas the human who ill-treated it is. After all, in many cases we would regard the wanton destruction of even inanimate objects as a crime, or a sin.

Guy Blythman, Shepperton, Middlesex

Dear Editor: In John Tamilio III’s otherwise very interesting article in PN 142 responding to Peter Singer’s thoughts on speciesism and humans’ unethical behavior towards animals, a few major issues were not discussed. Firstly, the question comes up about how an ‘animal’ is defined. Are insects animals? If so, should we not afford the common mosquito (even those carrying malaria) the same respect as the larger vertebrates? Indeed, why privilege fauna over flora? They are all living things. A broader synopsis would have been helpful.

Victor Molinari, Tampa, Florida

Articles of Art

Dear Editor: As someone who has been teaching art for much of his working life, I was delighted to find Issue 143 devoted to it, but surprised that the subject was seen to be so complex and enigmatic. May I suggest that a ‘work of art’ is not a precise concept which can be exemplified or defined, but a more nebulous concept which we nevertheless all understand and use freely? For instance, when someone says “Look at that spider’s web. It’s a work of art” we all know what they mean. Such declarations seem to be triggered by an experience which switches our attention away from any function the object may have, towards the form itself.

Meanwhile, in its time, Giotto’s Lamentation, which you used as an illustration, was not made as a ‘Work of Art’. It was made as an illustration of a Christian event. Giotto was a very fine painter, and such craftsmen were the only source of pictures at that time. To a largely illiterate audience, living in a world where pictures were a rarity, this painting must have felt magically real, and must have considerably enhanced the sermons from the clergy. By contrast, in the twenty first century we live in a world where pictures proliferate. We read the messages they convey, but few of these pictures give us that feeling of delight that can be generated by the form of the picture. This situation has spawned craftsmen – we call them ‘artists’ – who make pictures in which the form is the primary concern. But no made object can be completely free from any message, that is, from associations which trigger thoughts in the mind of the receiver. This aspect is often missed.

An art exhibition of found works by ‘R. Mutt’ (Marcel Duchamp), for example, implies that there may be no ‘works of art’ categorically distinct from other made objects. Alternatively put, we can view all made objects as ‘works of art’ if we dismiss any contextual aspects and concentrate on their formal properties. Art galleries allow us to do this. Or it may be that with ‘art’, the formal properties are so in harmony with our cognitive system that we see them before we see any purpose.

Roy Anderson

Dear Editor: In her article on photography in Issue 143, Atika Qasim makes a couple of mutually contradictory assertions. She starts from the assertion that photographers possesses the power to ‘define other peoples’ stories’. She then laments the paternalism of what she calls ‘the defining mind-set’, based in the idea that, as inhabitants of the privileged ‘zone of being’, we possess the power to redefine the people represented, and so the world, and this is bad. But she later devotes a chunk of her article to explaining how the same inhabitants of the ‘zone of being’ have a moral responsibility to amplify the voices of their subjects. So, privileged ‘zone dwellers’ do have a responsibility to change the world after all. They should, she implies, follow the noble example of the photographer Louis Hine, who used his work to draw attention to social ills. His work sympathetically portrayed social problems and showed that art could be a force of substantial social reform. So art is only legitimate when it is put into the service of social justice; and artists both should and should not assume this responsibility.

Majalli Fatah, Marseilles

Subject to Ethical Criticism

Dear Editor: Gary Cox’s discussion of Hume’s (alleged) moral subjectivism and G.E. Moore’s moral realism in Issue 143 was clear and useful. But I was disappointed to find no mention of Derek Parfit’s more recent attack on subjectivism. To say that moral and aesthetic decisions are just a matter of taste suggests that the only possible response to a torturer is to murmur “ chacun à son goût.” Many people – especially economists, for whom progress means getting more of what you thought you wanted – cite Hume in defence of such a view. This led Parfit to comment: “As Keynes remarked, many politicians act in ways that show them to be the slaves of some dead economist. Many economists, we can add, think in ways that show them to be the slaves of some dead philosopher.” Hume is probably the dead philosopher Parfit had in mind; but this interpretation of Hume as a moral relativist is open to question. We must distinguish final desires from instrumental desires: the desire for a corkscrew would be an instrumental desire, with the final desire being to enjoy a glass of wine. Instrumental desires may be irrational – as the desire for a corkscrew would be if the only bottles to hand are screwtops. But concerning final desires, at the end of what he regarded as his finest work, his Enquiry, Hume suggests that we can keep asking questions about our desires up to the point where we establish that they reduce pain or bring pleasure: “Ask a man ‘why he uses exercise’; he will answer ‘because he desires to keep his health’. If you then enquire ‘why he desires health’, he will readily reply ‘because sickness is painful’. If you push your enquiries further and desire a reason ‘why he hates pain’, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.” While Hume regarded the desire for more pleasure and less pain as not subject to reason, he still contrasted the ‘calm passions’ which promote them with violent ones, which may not. In his Treatise, Hume also refers to ‘wants, real or imaginary’. Unfortunately he does not say how to distinguish one from the other, but the fact that he makes this distinction shows he believed that desires are not immune to questioning.

In operational terms, the conclusion of Hume’s analysis is absolutely in line with Parfit’s conclusion that “Everyone ought to follow the principles whose being universal laws would make things go best, because these are the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will.” The main difference is that for Parfit it is reason that tells us to follow these principles, while for Hume the passions are not subject to reason. It must also be admitted that Hume gives less thought than Parfit to the question of how we balance the pleasure and pain of ourselves and our loved ones against that of strangers. That was what Moore’s predecessor Henry Sidgwick regarded as ‘the insoluble problem’, and the one that Moore tried to resolve – in a way that has not stood the test of time.

Charles Young, Oxford

Thinking about Tallis

Dear Editor: Whilst reading Raymond Tallis in PN 143, I am thinking what to have for lunch. If I have understood him, he would expect a discussion to be going on in my head – something like this: ‘Shall I have an ordinary meal or something more fancy?… Ordinary, it takes less time. There is bacon in the fridge, and tomatoes and mushrooms. Shall I fry the egg or boil it? Boiled egg doesn’t go well with fried bacon…’ But what actually happens is that I feel the cool handle of the fridge door, I pick up the bacon, smell it, look around and see tomatoes and mushrooms. I hear the sound as I slice them on my chopping board. The knife is a pleasure to hold, heavy, a razor edge, a present from my son, who loves tools. I see the bacon curl in the pan, hear it sizzle, the delicious smell. I see the egg, crispy round the edges. I have not spoken, or even thought, a word.

Intellectuals such as Tallis and me risk bewitchment by language; but Bryan Magee, in the very book Tallis quotes, remarks how rarely thought is verbal. A few times I have done a small experiment with groups, asking them to think for a couple of minutes about what they’ll do after the meeting. Then I ask them what has been going on in their heads. Only rarely did anyone have an internal discussion. Usually, they saw themselves doing something: catching a bus, going shopping… They thought in images. And as a painter, I do not say to myself, ‘Shall I put the pink next to the green?’ I put it there in my imagination and see whether it will do. Besides, many colours and shapes have no name and can only be demonstrated. Ask a dancer to think of their work and they will show you, or else struggle to explain with abstract diagrams. A composer does not say to himself, ‘I’ll have a diminuendo here’: he listens in imagination to the music getting quieter, and if he likes it, writes it down. Try explaining to a somebody who has never seen it, without demonstrations, the bowling action of the cricketer. And the image of the Ouroboros that suggested to August Kekulé the benzene ring is not the only example of an image which solved a scientific problem.

Thinking, it seems to me, is creating an imaginary world out of the raw materials supplied by our senses. But the model of the world we create from this is all we have. There must be a reality, as there is in the guts of a computer; but what we experience is analogous to the icons on the screen. This model is so well made, so often updated, that it is a reliable world for me to live in. Planning for tomorrow, I experiment with details before committing myself. It is a full sensory world, but it is imagined. So, think about going for a walk, and all the sensations of walking go with you, albeit less vividly. Language and other abstractions enhance the model enormously, but on their own they are mere patterns.

Tom Chamberlain, Newark

More Women Philosophers Now!

Dear Editor: I sat down with my first copy – ‘Time, Identity & Free Will’ (Issue 141) – and just a few moments later I realised that two hours had flown by. The irony of that did not escape me.

However, when I turned to ‘Homo informaticus’ by Luc de Brabandere and gazed at the wonderful drawing by Cartoonbase, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. Every single one of the featured philosophers was a man – and usually, I think, a white Western man. I had a similar feeling when I was training as a counsellor in 2018: each of the counsellors that were referred to in terms of the foundations of counselling were white Western men. This is undoubtedly troubling, but not at all surprising. It would be interesting to know if behind these undoubtedly great men were some great women who may be due some credit; and to explore how the growing influence of a range of genders is impacting modern philosophy, and perhaps changing how we view historical philosophy.

I don’t have a problem with men per se. I am one. But one who was mostly raised by two women, which I believe has made me realise the vital importance of women. Indeed, I believe the imbalances as a result of masculine dominance that we see perpetuated across our world may in fact be the key driver behind many of our greatest problems.

There is an almost equal gender split in the global population, so for something as important as plumbing the fundamental nature of knowledge and reality, it seems self-evident that the discipline needs to have gender balance at its core.

Andrew Birley

No Microbe Rights Now!

Dear Editor: In the News of Issue 143, Anja Steinbauer asks the question: ‘Do Martian Microbes Have Rights?’. Answer, ‘No’, for two key reasons: They are not sentient, and have no legal status.

Andrew J. Lewis, Chelmsford

Cynical Remarks

Dear Editor: Stephen Anderson’s review of Lindsay and Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories (Issue 143) lays out clearly the object of the authors’ ire as being the mish-mash of ideas corralled under the term ‘Critical Theory’, which subsequently emerged as Postmodern Theory. Anderson also rightly challenges the assumption that the liberal alternative offered by the authors is unproblematic. But he errs in attributing the dictum ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ to Jacques Lacan. The term originates not with Lacan, but with Jean-Francois Lyotard in the Introduction to his The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) This report was written for the Conseil des Universites of the Quebec government, where he states that: “I define [the] postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives” (p.xxiv).

Alan R. How, Worcester

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