welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

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



Logic & Fallacies • Off the Rails Again • Theodicy Continues • Rolling Back the Digital Tide • Knowing Foucault Himself • Rubbishing Rubbish • Cicero Civilises Characteristically • Pluralism vs French Universalism

Logic & Fallacies

Dear Editor: Thanks to Kevin Currie-Knight for a well written, well argued piece in 154, ‘Humans, the Believing Animals’… which confirms my own bias. Less flippantly, I think he is correct to emphasise the dominant role of belief in our sense of self, and our comfort in that.

Beliefs and attitudes can be changed, and in practice do continuously change throughout our lives. There may be a sense of permanence about them at any instant of time, even though our beliefs and attitudes are continually adjusting in some, usually pretty small, degree as a result of engagement with other people. Mostly, we are not especially aware of such changes, considering them to be clarifications, or refinements of our pre-existing belief. This avoids the emotional discomfort associated with being wrong. But, on occasion, we recognise explicitly that we are wrong. It is then that significant change in belief occurs. Sometimes, the associated discomfort leads to rejection, and can result in catastrophic actions. On other occasions, there is a substantial voluntary change in belief or attitude. This was at one time described as a ‘gestalt shift’, and it can be accompanied by a sense of euphoria. Some Christians, for example, have used the term being Born Again. In my own case, as a teenager, deciding I had no need for the ‘God hypothesis’, I felt a weight being lifted from me.

In the course of our lives there are occasions when we have to attempt to change the beliefs or attitudes of others. I was a head teacher of three different secondary schools, and that entailed seeking to bring about changes to the cultures. Such periods are not easy because beliefs or attitudes are part of our identity, so the process of change becomes emotionally charged. Nevertheless, changes can be made to the culture of an organisation – sometimes demoralising, but, mostly, I would say, for the better, for most of those involved. As Prof Currie-Knight indicates, we have to start the process of change close to where people are in terms of belief or attitude, and this can be a source of cognitive dissonance and emotional distress. The instigator of the change has to be prepared to accept that she or he will have to change beliefs and attitudes, too. However, resolution of the cognitive dissonance brings the change, and that requires a degree of reason.

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow

Off the Rails Again

Dear Editor: In offering ‘A Solution to the Trolley Problem’ (PN 154), Rick Coste says that “a society that would allow, or even condone, the sacrifice of one life for the many as an integral component of its value system would not survive for long.” In fact, I can think of no-one who does not live in such a society. Every nation has armed forces. Any member of the armed services places their own life at risk with the aim of protecting others. Let alone condoned, this is organised by the state! Further, many countries still have conscription, under which citizens are required, without choice, to place themselves in the situation Mr Coste considers immoral.

Michael Shaw, Huddersfield

Dear Editor: On Rick Coste’s examination of the Trolley Problem in Issue 154: it seems to me that we do live in a society that condones the sacrifice of one life for the many, and that it has survived for a very long time. In war, it may be tactically necessary for an officer to allow a platoon to be sacrificed to delay the enemy advance. In peace, the health service will never have the resources to save and prolong all the lives it otherwise might. The medical profession has daily to take decisions that involve the allocation of life-saving equipment for the seriously ill. Such decisions involve weighing up the number of lives that might be saved and the quality of life the surviving patients and their dependents might enjoy. Deciding whether and how much to donate to a charity, for the relief for earthquake victims, for instance, also places human lives in the balance. For me, the potency of the trolley problem is not just that it presents us with a dilemma of the sort that societies routinely confront and deal with; it acts too as a reminder that choosing to do nothing is also a decision for which we are fully responsible. That might sometimes be hard to cope with. But cope we do, in all manner of ways.

Colin Stott, Somerset

Dear Editor: I have to say the trolley problem in Issue 154 is utter nonsense. How can anyone make a rational decision with so little information? If the five people who come into hospital requiring organs are the inner circle of the Nazi regime, would the decision whether to give them someone else’s be different? If the person you’re prepared to sacrifice for them is going to save the world from WW3, would the decision you make be different? As well as the history and character of the potential recipients, the trolley proposition also ignores personal bias or prejudice. There is simply not enough information for a rational person to make an informed decision. The whole trolley prospect is utter tosh.

Simon Howells

Dear Editor: I was interested to read ‘A Solution to The Trolley Problem’ in Issue 154. I once presented the problem in a similar way at an evening session of a Philosophy In Pubs conference. PIP fosters community philosophy and was started on Merseyside over a decade ago. The responses of the group, who were seated around tables in Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, were interesting.

As Rick Coste indicated, an alternative set-up to the problem involves a hospital waiting room in which there are six patients: two in desperate need of a kidney transplant, one a heart transplant, one a lung transplant, and one a liver transplant. One, however, is there for a sprained ankle. Should the ankle sufferer be sacrificed to provide organs for those in desperate need of the life-saving transplants? A large majority on most tables voted No and were shocked when on one table most voted Yes. (Around that table were seated those most interested in philosophy.) For the standard Trolley Problem, utilitarian rules seemed the best option: save the many at the expense of the one – although some thought that to take responsibility for sacrificing lives rather than leaving it to fate was playing God and unacceptable. However, this case made me realise viscerally that I could never do that. The table that thought it was acceptable to sacrifice the one patient for the five had followed reason and not human feeling. They did not imagine what the real scenario would feel like.

If you want to be guided by philosophical ideas on ethics other than utilitarianism, then Kant is your man. He argued that we should always treat others as ends and not merely as means, ie, do not merely use other people. In both organ and trolley cases, a fellow human being is being used as a thing. I think I’ll stick to Kant’s Categorical Imperative and try not to play God by judging the worth of other human beings. Real life will never be as simple as a thought experiment anyway. This particular exercise also showed that preceding questions and the order and wording of questions greatly influence responses.

Corrie L. Lowry, Merseyside

Theodicy Continues

Dear Editor: I enjoyed Muhammad Mohsin Masood’s article on theodicy or the problem of evil in PN 154. What a complex subject it is, and not all religious traditions have such an emphasis on evil – Zen Buddhists would probably dispute moral dualism. In fact, some traditions would argue that we best take reality as it is and avoid putting too much weight on categories like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Even if we believe in God, God might stand outside of those categories. Islam seems to have a similar tradition, expressed in the term ‘Allah knows best’. Popular Christianity has likewise taught that ‘Everything happens for a reason’. The question of good and evil then becomes a meaningless one: life is as it is, the universe is as it is, God is as God is. The evolutionary aspect evoked by Hick and Iqbal is compatible with this outlook. We are flung into a mystery, but we move towards something greater. But mystery is the reality we exist in: it could be no other way.

Life effuses tragedy, and sometimes the tragic appears under ghastly forms, but this is only one aspect of life. Comedy is another. The question of good and evil seems to touch upon deeper issues of life and death, being and non-being. Discussion on those points takes us into the abyss of theology, and thence towards a mysticism that goes beyond words. At such wordless mystical heights, all religions seem to converge into one, and this might resonate with Hick’s overall work. If we go but a little further, the culmination of this mysticism reveals the meaningless of the word ‘God’, since we’ve already gone beyond language. This idea is echoed in the Kabbalah concept of the Ein Sof, and in The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is appropriately anonymous.

Anthony A. MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris

Dear Editor: Martin Jenkins in Issue 154 is uncharitable to atheist theodicy when presenting their argument as ‘The world is not organised as I would have organised it if I were God.’ It’s not that we expect our personal moral beliefs to be held and practiced by God; but rather, we argue that universal moral principles are violated if there exists a God who fails to prevent the deaths of millions of people by natural disasters. We would consider it a grave moral error if a human had foreknowledge of an earthquake but abstained from warning anyone in advance; so we need a tremendously good reason not to hold God to the same standard – or else we would need to abandon the universally-held moral belief that we ought to prevent people from dying unnecessarily.

Dino Mehić, California

Dear Editor: In Philosophy Now 154, Martin Jenkins rejects the atheist’s challenge to belief in a God based on the problem of evil: the problem of why an all-powerful, good God would permit evil. Jenkins introduces the possibility discussed by Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, that evil exists because God is insane or incompetent or malicious, or because there are one or more gods undermining him. Clearly, if any of these were true, then this might explain the existence of evil. But this isn’t really relevant to the traditional problem of evil, which is why does an all-powerful, good monotheistic-type God permit evil? Nothing that Jenkins says undermines the force of that argument. The Christian or the Muslim, for instance, has no interest in defending a God who is insane, incompetent, malicious, or outnumbered. The Christian’s and the Muslim’s belief is in an all-powerful, good God. This is what the atheist attacks with the problem of evil, and nothing Jenkins says is relevant to that.

Robert Griffiths, Godalming

Rolling Back the Digital Tide

Dear Editor: In Issue 154, in ‘Virtual Dissolution’, Maryna Lazareva talks about how we are looking in the wrong place for meaning if we’re looking online. This is so true: people are using social media to try to give themselves meaning, causing them to become addicted to it.

Social media is one of mankind’s worst creations. It is highly destructive in many aspects of life. Younger people jumping onto social media generally end up fretting that other people are living better lives than them. This, in my honest opinion, has led to an increase in mental health issues, especially anxiety.

I personally gave up all social media in 2021, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Trust someone who gave it up, you’ll enjoy life more once you uninstall those apps! Most of the people you’re trying to impress don’t care what you ate for dinner or where you went on vacation. Taking pictures of your travels is great for your memories, but you don’t have to share it. Let’s go back to a world where we don’t know what our neighbors had for dinner unless they tell us.

Chase Ojers, Reno, Nevada

Philosophy Now Not Infallible

Dear Editor: Peter Mullen’s ‘God Bless Karl Marx’ in Issue 154 was considerably below the standard one expects in Philosophy Now. Mullen twice quotes Marx as saying ‘property is theft’. It is, I think, fairly well-known that this proposition was in fact advanced by the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the only times the phrase appears in Marx’s writings are when he’s criticising Proudhon. This is not a matter of any great erudition: the Wikipedia article ‘Property is Theft!’ gives a perfectly adequate account of the slogan. I would not expect to read in Philosophy Now that ‘I think therefore I am’ was said by John Locke; but Mullen’s misattribution is equally culpable.

Furthermore, the assorted biographical information is cited out of context to misleadingly imply that Marx lived in prosperity. As Francis Wheen’s biography (a well-documented study by a non-Marxist) shows, Marx lived in considerable poverty. He was moreover a political refugee – an asylum seeker. At a time when refugees are so widely under attack, one might have hoped that Mullen, a clergyman, would show Christian compassion rather than making cheap sneers.

Surely Philosophy Now should be offering an intelligent critical assessment of Marx’s work rather than engaging in infantile satire.

Ian Birchall, London

Knowing Foucault Himself

Dear Editor: In her letter criticising Foucault in PN 154, Mary Jane Streeton misunderstands the point he’s making in the passage she quotes from, which is specifically about changes that took place in thinking about sexuality in the Nineteenth Century. Homosexuality had been condemned and forbidden for many centuries before this, but in the Nineteenth Century there began to be a shift from considering homosexual acts to a characterisation of individual people as ‘homosexuals’. Here we can find the pre-history of contemporary identity politics (which is the ‘reverse discourse’ referred to by Foucault). ‘Homosexual’ begins to be seen as what a person is, not just a sinful act they might occasionally commit.

Foucault’s most central concern, throughout his writings, is the history of human conceptions of the self. It was in the Nineteenth Century, he contends, that sexuality began to be regarded as an essential defining component of self. This paved the way for today’s notion that we each have a sexuality as a part of our identity – a very recent way of thinking.

Foucault lists ‘pederasty’ [sex with boys] alongside ‘homosexuality’ and ‘inversion’ because in Nineteenth Century writings these terms were treated as almost synonymous. The most widely discussed (and condemned) form of homosexuality was the love of an older man for an adolescent boy. It was this to which Oscar Wilde referred as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. (It is instructive that had Wilde been put on trial today, his prison sentence would have been longer, and the destruction of his reputation more complete.) In the 2nd Volume of his History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses the institutionalisation of pederasty in ancient Athens, where it was considered advantageous for a boy to have an older lover who could introduce him to important and influential people in the city. The extent of their physical relationship, however, was hedged round with reservations and etiquette. There was neither wholesale rejection, nor complete acceptance, of sexual acts between men and boys. Foucault’s discussion specifically shows how different ancient Greek ideas about sexuality were from our own. His purpose is not the assertion of moral relativism, but rather tracing the historical mutations of human self-conception.

Peter Benson, London

Rubbishing Rubbish

Dear Editor: Re ‘The Crumpled Paper Hoax’, Issue 153, Turner Prize winner and wit Martin Creed’s 1994 Work no: 88 consists of a sheet of plain A4 paper. The recipient of the paper is instructed to crumple it into a ball and place it on a shelf, to begin its life as an artwork. The recipient is by this act turned into the agent of creation: is she thus the artist? If the ball falls off the shelf, gets chucked in the bin, is it no longer an artwork? At what point in its fall did it stop being an artwork and become a piece of rubbish?

Stephanie Douet, Artist

Cicero Civilises Characteristically

Dear Editor: I have had the privilege of teaching Roman History as part of an Ancient History A-Level. Here our main topic is the breakdown of the late Republic. I greatly enjoyed Hilarius Bogbinder’s ‘Brief Life of Cicero’ in Issue 153 for this reason. On our course, Cicero is considered the best character. We study him as a participant in events, but we also study his historical information. His ‘pro Sestio’ is an important legal defence useful for his comments on the different factions in the Roman Senate, seeming akin to the modern two-party systems seen in some Western democracies.

The article talked of Cicero’s recommendation of a mixed constitution, and also of his time in Greece while writing. I thought it would be interesting to comment on Cicero’s Greek influences. Plutarch was referenced – a Greek writer whose Parallel Lives compares important Roman and Greek figures for their virtues. Another writer was Polybius, who died in the early first century BC and was another Greek writing for a Roman audience. His theory of anacyclosis can be explained as follows. There are three virtuous forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. Each has a degenerative form into which it will inevitably regress: tyranny, oligarchy, ochlocracy (rule of the mob). Each degenerative form will lead to the emergence of the next virtuous government: tyranny to aristocracy, oligarchy to democracy, ochlocracy to monarchy; and so the cycle begins anew. The Roman Republic’s mixed constitution as advocated by Cicero aimed to include all three virtuous form of government as a check and balance on the powerful potential of the other forms, thus preventing degenerative cycles and constant revolutions or instability.

Rob Haves, Kent

Pluralism vs French Universalism

Dear Editor: According to Manon Royet in Issue 153, French philosophy has not changed that much and the world has. The world has evolved and is supposedly ‘weary’ of philosophical universalism. But since when has the discipline of philosophy in pursuit of truth had to adapt to current world views? For example, should the idea of Universal Human Rights be now regarded as merely an optional notion in a sea of pluralism? Or should philosophers, including some French, be admired for leading us to a better, and more logical, conclusion about the ideal way to be?

Michael Hanley, Melbourne

Dear Editor: Manon Royet, in Issue 153, blames contemporary French philosophy for its continued allegiance to Enlightenment-style universalism, which, she claims, ‘denies pluralism’ and leads to exclusion and oppression. But doesn’t her argument itself rest on a universal moral principle – namely, that exclusion and oppression are unjust? Quite a few worldviews are not grounded in a respect for pluralism. Will Royet’s model society exclude or include such worldviews?

David Levy, John Cabot University, Rome

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. X