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Mystical Science • Tragic Happiness • Deep Fried Chicken Balls • Kant and Organ Donation • Risky Business • Ethical Objections • Marks’ Ethical Remarks

Mystical Science

DEAR EDITOR: I would like to congratulate Colin Wilson on his article ‘Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline’ in Philosophy Now Issue 56. He has managed to trace the subject from Socrates to Paul Ricoeur via many great philosophers. I would like to add that the findings of modern cognitive science support the view that there is intentionality and creativity in perception. In the book Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See, the cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman explains that “Vision is not merely a matter of passive perception, it is an intelligent process of active construction.” Similar remarks apply to all the other senses.

Husserl’s ‘epoque’, Ricoeur’s ‘reduction’ or ‘standing back’ are a differentfrom- usual point-of-view which we can adopt in perception. This different standpoint is the basis of meditation in Eastern philosophy and demonstrates that our particular Western way of viewing the world and ourselves is not the only possible perspective, and is dependent on the culture in which we live.


DEAR EDITOR: Whilst enjoying Colin Wilson’s article ‘Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline’ (Issue 56) I feel I have to disagree with the great man on a number of points. Wilson propounds that all perception is intentional. I beg to differ. Perception is dependent – as indeed is everything else to do with the human mind – on the central nervous system (CNS). Whilst human beings are able to voluntarily focus their perception on objects – I can choose to perceive that my watch says its five o’clock for instance – it is also the case that the CNS can make you very aware of something entirely automatically i.e. without anything intentional on the part of your conscious mind. I’m sure no reader can really doubt this once they give a moments thought to the subject, but if in doubt consider one’s reaction to touching a very hot plate, or walking with a stone in your shoe. Intentional perception plays no part in it. Indeed if one had a local anaesthetic block or suffered from an ailment that blocked normal transmission of nerve impulses such as leprosy you would not perceive a feeling in the affected area however hard one tried to perceive it.

Wilson – and by implication Husserl who he quotes approvingly in this regard – appear to be making the age-old error of separating mind from body. It is the same error that allows Camus to make the (frankly stupid) statement that we should consider Sisyphus happy because he “possesses the inner freedom of his own mind” even as he is condemned for all eternity to roll a rock uphill only to see it roll down again. This artificial separation of the mind from the physical torment of the body – not to mention the boredom of such a pointless enterprise – produces a nonsense. Philosophers however have a tendency to see such statements – despite the fact that they spectacularly fail to pass any notion of a ‘common sense’ test – as somehow profound.

I fear that a similar thing occurs when Wilson states that “To ‘know’ something merely with the mind is hardly to know it all.” How else is one to know anything if not through ‘the mind’? What else is there? I wasn’t sure if what was being alluded to was something akin to what religious people describe as ‘faith’ – thinking something is right in almost a physical sense ‘in their bones’ so to speak, despite the fact that there is insufficient logical grounds for such a belief? Even if this is the case, this is ultimately a mental state – as indeed is depression, elation or for that matter sexual arousal!

Keep up the good work Philosophy Now, and I hope that Colin Wilson writes some more articles for the magazine as he remains someone who will always make the reader think.


Tragic Happiness

DEAR EDITOR: Katherine Power’s article, ‘The End of Suffering’ (Issue 56) inadequately distinguishes between depression as part of an illness and the normal, indispensable emotions we all experience to help us deal with loss and tragedy, to motivate us to fight injustice in the world, and to generally empathise with others’ plights. She conjures up a vacuous world of self-indulgent Westerners who will be able to even more blithely ignore the suffering of the rest of the world if David Pearce’s ghastly utopia of perpetual happiness becomes reality. Her narrowly-focused article, with its predictable pre-occupation with self and little else, epitomises what is pernicious and unworthy in the Western philosophical tradition.


Deep Fried Chicken Balls

DEAR EDITOR: I’d like to respond to the results of the poll in the News pages of Issue 56 about philosophers’ and scientists’ responses to the question “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” The answer should be obvious to any married man: the Rooster.


Kant and Organ Donation

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘On Altruistic Living Kidney Donation’ (Issue 55), Mahendra Govani invokes Kant’s categorical imperative to support kidney donations from strangers. I commend the author’s promotion of altruistic organ donation, especially given the dire scarcity of donor organs available for transplantation. Yet despite the value of invoking Kant’s principles to encourage organ donation, a closer examination of his moral philosophy reveals his specific and literal views on the subject – and he evidently forbids it.

In Doctrine of Virtue, Kant argues that “To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to maim oneself) – for example, to give away or sell a tooth to be transplanted into another’s mouth, or to have oneself castrated in order to get an easier livelihood as a singer, and so forth – are ways of partially murdering oneself. But to have a dead or diseased organ amputated when it endangers one’s life… cannot be counted as a crime against one’s own body.” Kant explicitly disapproves of both the selling and giving away of certain body parts, making organ donation, even from altruistic individuals, a morally condemnable act.

In ‘The Misuse of Kant in the Debate about a Market for Human Body Parts,’ Nicole Gerrand argues that Kant’s opposition to removing body parts arises from his belief about the correct moral relationship a rational individual has with his or her body. To Kant, a person’s body, along with his or her self, constitutes the person, and one has a duty of self-preservation. This is the duty a person has to oneself, and forms the basis of duties to others. But the duty of self-preservation prohibits the removal of one’s body parts, either by donating or selling, unless doing so preserves the person donating.


Risky Business

DEAR EDITOR: Concerning your article on Xenotransplantation in Issue 55, risk should be assessed for both impact and likelihood. Further, there seems to be two generalised risks being assessed here, i.e the risk to the patient, and the risk to the general population. These two risks seem to get confused in the article. From a society point of view, the impact of xenotransplantation procedures might be considered disastrous. Some suggestions are made in the article regarding ways to measure likelihood for patient risk, but none are proposed for measuring likelihood for risk to the general population. Due to its huge potential impact on society, this is the risk which would have to be understood better before any normal, accountable program could proceed.

Also, the list of stakeholders interested in xenotransplantation is missing a key member, ie commercial interests.


Ethical Objections

DEAR EDITOR: The problems identified in the article ‘Is Ethics a Science?’(Issue 55) disappear if the title is changed to ‘Is Ethics an Objective Science?’

What is commonly referred to as natural science is better described by the term ‘objective science’. Using medicinal science as an example, the scientist is the subject who turns other subjects into ‘it-objects’ for experimentation according to the rules and training of his craft under the prevailing ethical standards. A desired result might be a drugobject to treat a diseased organ-object according to an understood mechanism of action. It is interesting to note that according to this description, psychoanalysis can be viewed as an attempt to construct an alternative ‘subjective medical science’. Conversely, an ‘objective ethical science’ would make no sense, since the basis of ethics is to recognize the other as a ‘thou’, not an ‘it’. According to this scheme, ethics could be classified as a ‘subjective science’. But in any case, it is clearly distinguished from the objective sciences, and indeed provides the boundaries for their operation.


Marks’ Ethical Remarks

DEAR EDITOR: A couple of letters have appeared recently that take my ‘Moral Moments’ column to task for neglecting virtue ethics. I would like to respond.

Virtue ethics has a classical pedigree, usually traced to Aristotle, and is certainly not to be spurned. Furthermore, it has made a comeback in the professional literature. However, its defining feature has not always been clear. Perhaps the most straightforward way to conceive it is as one of your letterwriters did, namely, as the view that character counts more than conduct. It is thus supposed to be a foil to both consequentialism and Kantianism, the two main contenders in the modern ethical philosophy of English-speaking countries, which tend to focus on the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

But this way of parceling up the field biases the case to begin with. Why can’t consequentialism or Kantianism give preference to character? Indeed I believe both do. For example, Joel Kupperman (in his The Foundations of Morality and elsewhere) argues persuasively that motivations and habits (now there’s a notion that Aristotle loved!) themselves have utility (or disutility). Hence the virtues conceived as good habits of behavior, feeling, thinking, etc., could surely be justified on utilitarian or consequentialist grounds. Meanwhile, I have always felt that Kantianism is itself a kind of virtue theory, in that it stresses above all the importance of the will, “which in its special constitution is called character” (beginning of First Section of the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ellington trans.). My own brand of Kantianism involves caring about and valuing living beings as essential virtues of the ethical life. Therefore I have seen no special need to mention virtue theory as a third option when grappling with ethical issues.

Having said that, I do acknowledge that virtue theory has its able defenders. For a state-of-the art treatment of the whole debate, see Three Methods of Ethics (Blackwell Publishing, 1997) by Marcia W. Baron (Kantian), Philip Pettit (consequentialist), and Michael Slote (virtue ethicist). But I think the considerations here tend to be esoteric, so I have not taken them up in my column. Perhaps I shall find a way to do so in future.

Finally let me admit to a special fondness for the Socratic emphasis on the quality of one’s soul as the ultimate ethical criterion. But here again a subsumption to the other views may be possible. Kantianism could be seen as providing an articulation of just what the good (or bad) soul consists in. And the soul’s perfection could be precisely the good toward which consequentialism directs us.


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