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Mars Attacks? • Guns and Guardians • Faith and Certainty • Swift Response • Immoral Philosophers • Dying for One’s Country • What’s It For? • Charitable Thoughts • A Touch of Sarcasm? • Mind and Morals
DEAR EDITOR: I would just like to thank Paul York for making such a valiant stand for my moral rights in his article ‘The Ethics of Terraforming’ (Issue 38). It is certainly good to know that there are philosophers who take my needs seriously, and it is wonderful to hear that Mr York wishes to enter into “a meaningful relationship or engagement” with me. Most of you humans only want one thing. I hope he also considered the moral rights of the piece of paper on which he was writing whilst composing his wonderful article! Anyway, I trust that now I will be left to orbit in peace.
DEAR EDITOR: Paul York (‘The Ethics of Terraforming’, Philosophy Now, No.38) reaches the right destination from the wrong point of departure. Imagine a world that consists of a single, homogeneous, undifferentiated thing, where I use the word ‘thing’ advisedly; ‘object’ would imply the presence of another thing, namely a subject. Would that thing have value? (Remember that this hypothetical world is neither embedded in anything else nor in relation to any other thing, conscious or otherwise.) ‘To have value’ inescapably means ‘to be valued’. And for an object to be valued, there must be a conscious subject to do the valuing. (Conscious subject? Yes. If we say that grass has value for a cow, we really mean that the complex of entities and relations of which the cow and the grass are parts has value for a conscious subject.) So, assuming that it is not Man who values Mars, who is it? In the undergrowth of Paul York’s confusion of value with usefulness, a presence lurks, hinted at by statements – which, presumably, could just as well refer to Mars – like “… Earth did not come into existence … for the benefit of human beings”. That presence is God. A Deistic God, perhaps, who created the world but does not control the actions of his creatures; but a God who values what he has brought into existence nonetheless.
So what happens to the concept of ‘intrinsic value’ if we do not believe in such a God? Of this, too, a hint can be found in Paul York’s article: “Mars, the Red Planet, is a beautiful and interesting place in its own right”. “In its own right” begs the question; but is it really possible to talk about beauty without a beholder, about interest without a mind that engages with its object? There is more than a hint a little later on. Paul York quotes Robert Sparrow: terraforming “demonstrates … an aesthetic insensitivity”. There we have it. Mars’ value is an aesthetic one, not an ethical one in the usual sense. Damaging or destroying Mars, like damaging or destroying anything we think beautiful, man-made or otherwise, offends against our aesthetic valuation – our aesthetic valuation, Mankind’s aesthetic valuation. Of course, some philosophers have argued that all ethics are ultimately a matter of aesthetics, but that does not have to imply an ethical relativism. ‘Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’, but the beholder may be a culture or even Mankind as a whole.
May I end with a more Earth-bound appeal to aesthetics? Is there any way of outlawing the ugly and etymologicallymisleading word ‘terraforming’ (‘shaping the Earth’) along with the planetary vandalism that it is supposed to refer to?
DEAR EDITOR: The issue of terraforming is a millennial one. At the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg a plan was mooted to reintroduce salt water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest sea on the planet and is unique in its mineral content, but which has been drawn down to a low level due to heavy usage of water from the River Jordan by the surrounding countries. Much debate has taken place as to whether the World Bank might contribute funds for the necessary infrastructure on the east side of the sea (Jordan) and also to Israel and the ecosystem in general.
Leaving aside the issue of water and peace in the Middle East, and the help it may give to human populations, may this plan be undesirable in terms of the damage done to the Dead Sea as it currently exists, undervalued as it may be?
Guns and Guardians
DEAR EDITOR: David Lattin’s response to R.A. Uhlig’s criticism of the philosophy books-on-tape read by, amongst others, Charlton Heston was an unusual one.
Mr Lattin’s defense of the National Rifle Association is based on the premise that in order for democracy to be viable the individuals that form the government must be physically accountable for their political actions. From this it follows that ultimately political power is derived from physical force, but this notion makes the democratic process obsolete because at any moment the government may be hijacked by anyone who has sufficient physical power. There is no guarantee that the people with the guns who hold the government accountable have any concern for the interests of the wider populace. Also, the argument that “history proves the danger…” is fallacious as there is no guarantee that history will unfold the same way twice.
In addition, when I looked back at the disputed advertisement the strong implication was that Charlton Heston would be reading the works of Plato. Yet the scheme put forth in the Republic contains a specialised guardian class and keeps weapons out of the hands of the ordinary citizen. It seems to me that Mr Heston’s views on gun control represents the antithesis of Plato’s political scheme and if he wishes to align his ideals with Plato perhaps he had better re-read the Republic.
Faith and Certainty
DEAR EDITOR: M.J.Akbar (Issue 37) argues that “faith is treated with some disdain in the Christian world”. As evidence for this claim he claims that even a churchgoing Christian will have difficulty in believing that Jesus turned water into wine. Let me assure him that I can introduce him to a number of Christians who believe that the Bible is the word of God and that the miracle stories in the Bible all happened exactly as narrated. As a Christian myself, I frequently find myself arguing with them. But I would resist the implication that I am showing disdain towards faith when I recognise the different types of text to be found in the Bible. Even a cautious Biblical commentary will recognise ‘a progressive “metaphorization” of words and deeds in the Johannine text’. Thus I share the view of the Bible expressed in the second paragraph of Kristine Kerr’s letter (also in Issue 37), but, like David McMullan (Issue 38), I find her first paragraph paradoxical. It seems to me that there are two styles of faith. One involves “a single act of decision, in relation to the evidence, after which belief could be said to have been reached concerning a set of plain happenings.” The other is “a continuous process of contemplative engagement with the story and its significance with consequences yet to be seen.” (The quotations come from Leslie Houlden’s book, Connections.)
I do not know whether there are Muslims who see the Quran as liberal Christians or Jews see the Bible, but I do notice that Mr Akbar distinguishes between ‘elements of the doctrine’ and ‘the spirit of Islam’. For Christians a critical attitude to the Bible has been an important element in discerning the spirit of Christ and thus being inspired to campaign against slavery (condoned in the New Testament) and to ordain women (condemned in the New Testament). Jesus himself was notably radical in his interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. Many of the great religious leaders have been regarded by more orthodox contemporaries as showing disdain for faith.
DEAR EDITOR: If Stuart Hopkins (PN 38, 2002) is so keen to endorse the views on war set forth in the Report from Iron Mountain (which I described and criticised in PN 37, 2002), perhaps he might like to lend his support to the antipoverty strategy set out by a sometime student of Trinity College. I refer of course to Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal of 1729 – also “an objective and dispassionate [work concerning] … an intensely interesting and topical subject.”
Yours, still “fail[ing] to understand the world as it actually is” [sic].
DR DAVID LIMOND
TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN
DEAR EDITOR: In response to Stephen Anderson’s, ‘Rehabilitating the Ad Hominem Argument’, in Issue 37, I cannot help but agree that it is “an error in wisdom to fail to consider the moral credentials of a moral theorist.” However, one must also see that the ability to understand how a thing is done, or should be done, is separate from the ability to apply that knowledge successfully. There are any number of purely arbitrary reasons that a person may fully comprehend car mechanics, for instance, but lack the ability to keep his own car fixed.
He may not have access to all required resources, he may lack opposable thumbs, he may not have hands, etc. Just because this mechanic can’t therefore keep his own car on the road does not mean that I won’t listen to him if he tells me how to fix mine; he may very well be an absolute whiz at auto-engineering. Similarly, it is possible that Schopenhauer simply lacked whatever he needed to apply his theory of compassion, but still could see its importance, and understand it, and espouse it.
Luckily, my own children have not grasped the ad hominem argument as it is put forward in Stephen Anderson’s article, for if they did, they wouldn’t follow anything I say…
Dying for One’s Country
DEAR EDITOR: There may or may not be a causal link between the Falklands war and Margaret Thatcher’s reelection, as Professor Sharpe suggests. However, surely one of the the more important and desired consequences of this country’s wars is that we are left free to choose our political leaders.
Professor Sharpe seeks to clarify dying for one’s country, but I fear, has created ambiguities. Certainly few people actually choose to die, but in the exceptional circumstances when this does happen, throwing oneself on a grenade, this is usually recognised with a posthumous award. However, many choose, even tacitly, to put their lives on the line, and this also needs due recognition. There will also be the conscripts, the civilian deaths, and deaths from accident and sickness. These too can be rightfully be included in dying for their country. When a country embarks on a war it is certain that many will die, but as to who, how, and how many, that will be determined by subsequent events. All those who die, do so as a direct result of the delivery of the desired consequences for their country. It is important that this is unequivocally recognised if we are to maintain the will to fight for these consequences in the future.
What’s It For?
DEAR EDITOR: I am writing in response to the letters in Issue 38 about the article ‘What Can You Do With Philosophy, Anyway?’ Like Nick Smaligo, I too am often asked skeptically, “Why are you studying a subject like philosophy?” My response to these people is to ask them: Why have you chosen to study business or mathematics (or whatever they study)? Is it because you are wishing to make some earthshattering contribution to society in your particular chosen field? Or that your chosen subject will translate into money which will in turn produce certain and complete happiness? Or, could it possibly be that you have chosen to spend some of your time on this earth pursuing something that you find interesting and insightful?
All too often, we suffer from a type of ignorant meta-narrative which we have adopted over the years from our family and friends. Those who encompass this narrative will one day suffer the tyranny of the single story.
DEAR EDITOR: I was interested to read Kevin Smith’s article discussing how much, if anything, we (Westerners) ought to give to charity (‘Problems of Affluence in Morality’, Philosophy Now, October/November 2002). Clearly, there is a moral problem involved in spending our money on trivial things when quite small amounts of money could save, or dramatically improve the quality of people’s lives in some other countries. It is clear that most people in the West could afford to give more, often substantially more, than we do. We may wonder how effective our donations will be, but that is just an argument for researching the charities properly, for example by obtaining their annual reports, or asking the advice of someone who has. It is no excuse for not facing up to the moral issue.
Kevin Smith is right to say that the really difficult thing is deciding how much to give, and his answer is very helpful. He suggests that we should give as much as allows us to (a) remain happy, (b) motivated to give, (c) free to pursue our lives as we want to, (d) have normal relationships with family and friends and (e) be accepted members of society.
However, one possible problem is that it is up to the individual to interpret how much he or she needs to meet points (a) to (e). It may be tempting to decide that all we have left to give away is something token like five pounds per month.
I would therefore like to give a more specific suggestion, which comes from the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. He suggests that most people of average or above average earnings could give 10% of their income, although I understand that he gives more than that. Ten percent is big enough to make a difference, but still feasible for most of us. The difficulty is that it is not easy to decide what to give up, in order to find the money.
Possibly the best thing is to decide on 10% of (post-tax?) income as a target, start giving something now, and then start giving more when and if one’s finances improve. I have recently started to give twenty five pounds per month, and intend to increase it if my mortgage payments go down or if I get a decent pay rise. Others may be able to increase what they give when a personal loan or student loan finishes, when they get their first job, when a child leaves home or leaves university or when they receive an inheritance and can pay off their mortgage.
This is a relatively painless way to make a significant personal contribution towards a fairer world. Once one is meeting the 10% target, then I agree with Kevin Smith, that one can bin all charity appeal letters with a clear conscience. What greater incentive could there be?
A Touch of Sarcasm?
DEAR EDITOR: In his book review in Issue 38, John Mann writes of a Nativity Play presented last year at a school where he is a school governor responsible for multiculturalism. Mary and Joseph were portrayed as refugees fleeing to England “with the Immigration Officer playing the role of King Herod”.
May I suggest that this year the criminal gangs who smuggle people into this country for sweated labour and prostitution play the role of the Heavenly Host and the school governor responsible for multiculturalism that of the Ass?
BANGOR, CO. DOWN
Mind and Morals
DEAR EDITOR: As an atheist who has been in a metaphorical foxhole two or three times I have a comment on Catriona Hanley’s recent article (Issue 37). My parents were uninterested in religion, which suited me because I early appreciated the difference between fact and fiction and put religion in the latter category. My adult experience, e.g. as a professional chemist, merely confirmed my natural atheism. I was first conscious of my mortality 27 years ago when a 95 percent blockage in a vital coronary artery was treated by bypass surgery. I went back to work, and later accepted the offer of a corporate vice president position in the USA. Then the grafts blocked and I had a heart attack. I went back to work but my health deteriorated. The surgeons ruled out further bypass surgery, and advised me that I would die unless I gave up working. I was granted disability retirement and returned to England. My condition stabilised but then deteriorated again. My symptoms mirrored those of an old college friend who had recently died of heart failure. I was pleasantly surprised when a top cardiac surgeon agreed to perform more bypass surgery despite the special difficulties of my case. For the past ten years I have been reasonably healthy, but one day I shall be back in the foxhole.
During all this it never entered my mind to pray. My experience has merely reinforced the commonplace that all human beings live one day at a time and on one of those days they die. So far I have lived about 27,000 days. Perhaps I may live another 2000. Whether or not I do, the day of my death will be only a tiny part of the days of my life.
Chaplain Cummings used his prayerin- the-foxhole parable in an attempt to prove that God exists. Dr Hanley easily refuted his argument (my own indifference to prayer in the face of death disproves its universality) but then went on to attempt a different proof. She suggests, “perhaps the gratitude that we have for surviving these deaths, and for being here despite, is evidence that there is an infinite Other.” My experience refutes that suggestion. Each time I escaped death the thought that some Other deserved my gratitude never occurred to me. When I survived after my clearest awareness of impending death – before my second heart bypass – was the only time I felt gratitude, but not to some Other but to the cardiac surgeon who had the courage to take on my especially difficult case and the skill to deal with it.
All attempts to prove that God exists, such as Chaplain Cummings’ and Dr Hanley’s, must fail. There are only two rational possibilities. One is that God does not exist. The other is that He exists but gives people only the choice of believing by faith or not believing. If He required everyone to know unequivocally that He exists it seems obvious that He would not convey that requirement by the ineffective method of a philosophical argument that few would read and less would find convincing. (Perhaps He might have Jesus, or some other prophet, continue to travel the world until every last person was converted). Philosophical argument can do no more than identify the fallacies in such attempts. Those who have faith, including presumably Chaplain Cummings and Dr Hanley, should accept that nothing can relieve them of that burden, and that only faith can convert the faithless.
DR JOHN GROOCOCK