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We’ve Got Issues!

by Rick Lewis

“What I understand by ‘philosopher’: a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo.

“The trouble with philosophy is that it has nothing to do with the real world!”, barked my interlocutor, Harry Madeup-Name, as he leaned against the bar at the golf club and ordered yet another round. “What does it have to say about things that really matter?”, he added, sliding majestically to the floor. I confess that I said nothing – partly because of the fifteen pints of Old Peculiar that I had just sunk, and partly because the entire incident was an invention anyway, and why should I bother arguing with a figment of my imagination?

Anyway, if the incident had been real, I might have responded that philosophy has plenty to say about controversies that are the subject of widespread public concern. Such thorny questions are frequently tackled in Philosophy Now anyway, but this time we’ve decided to make them the focus of the magazine – in other words, we’ve made this an issues issue (sorry).

The four ‘explosive issues’ discussed here are: animal rights; human cloning; war; and evolution. Last year, we tackled another public controversy – euthanasia – by commissioning an article on each side of the question and then letting each author respond to the other. This time, we’ve made no such attempt at even-handedness. Instead, on each of the four issues we allow one author to argue trenchantly for an unpopular or controversial viewpoint, and we hereby invite you, dear reader, to write or email your comments on the arguments of our intrepid four.

On animal rights, it seems obvious that we should avoid unnecessary cruelty to animals, as they clearly can feel pain (whatever Descartes said to the contrary), but if they have natural rights, where do those rights come from? And if we give them rights, then which rights should we give them and why? Human cloning is an idea which is met by general horror and alarm – perhaps due to some idea that it involves a violation of the uniqueness of the human individuals created. Maybe we always tend to confuse the idea of randomness with the idea of freedom, and there is much to untangle here. War and peace? We’re all still struggling with the questions of how best to respond to terror, to American power and to the desire (as David Gamez puts it here) to impose utopia by force. On evolution, though, let me come off the fence, for once – it seems to me that Darwinism has such a mountain of evidence in its favour, and the alternative Intelligent Design theory has such a need of additional entities (who is the Designer?) that one would need to already believe in God to find it at all tempting. Still, if we never printed articles unless I agreed with them, then we probably wouldn’t publish much at all. Peter’s article explains very well the different types of logical fallacies, and besides it is sometimes necessary to examine an attack on an idea to fully understand that idea. The article is a sustained attack on evolutionist Richard Dawkins, who is admired by many for his clarity, fearlessness and originality. In the Roman Catholic Church, part of the procedure of recognizing somebody as a saint is the Devil’s Advocate. This official, more properly known as the Promoter of the Faith, has the job of criticizing the names put forward for canonization. So before we finally beatify him, it behoves us to hear from the Devil’s Advocate about Richard Dawkins!

Some may accuse us of trying to be controversial with this approach. That is exactly what we are trying to do! But we are trying to be controversial not merely for the sake of controversy (fun though it be), but as a way of pursuing the truth about matters that matter.

One who would have approved (I hope) was the remarkable Professor Richard Taylor, who sadly died at the end of October. Well-known for contributions to many areas of philosophy, he was also a gadfly who delighted in ‘tweaking’ people, as he put it, all in the interests of getting them to think. I first came across Richard Taylor when I was taking an MA in philosophy in the late Eighties, and read a paper by him on the meaning of life. It struck me as being exactly what an analytic philosophy paper should be. So I was utterly delighted when, many years later, Richard Taylor began to contribute articles to Philosophy Now. He contributed both colour and logic to our pages. Three of his friends recall him in a special feature here.

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