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Heroes, Hatred & Human Rights • Credit Where It’s Due • Machine Of The Heart • Switching Glasses

Heroes, Hatred & Human Rights

DEAR EDITOR: I very much enjoyed Issue 73 of Philosophy Now, and whilst not a comics reader or superhero fan, nevertheless I found the related articles interesting reading. I was particularly struck by ToddWalters’ review of the recent Batman film (which I have not seen), and his wise conclusion that in times of crisis we must ask “how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.”

Unfortunately, the review was rather spoiled for me by the nonsense about hatred he endorsed.Walters’ first praised the Batman films for their exploration of moral ambiguity, but then he began to spout reductionist nonsense which appeared to support an over-simplified Good Guys vs Bad Guys worldview. His citing of Berman’s thesis that all hatred is the result of an ‘irrational paroxysm’, and his conclusion that “The wildest of hatreds do not need a cause outside of ourselves” is unhistorical, patronising and downright dangerous. Presumably Russians, Iranians and various other people who live outside the liberalWest are more prone to these paroxysms than we are: the fact that they may have something to rebel against is conveniently dismissed by this thesis. After all, these people are simply being irrational, so we need not take them seriously or examine the circumstances that might drive them towards their actions.

Moreover, Hitler and Stalin were certainly not nihilists. Both had their own moral codes and both believed in something. Stalin was well-read in Marx, Engels and Lenin, and probably obtained his messianic streak from studying in a seminary. Hitler was influenced by Nietzsche, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Herbert Spencer, among others. Both believed what they were doing was right and morally justified, and both were a product of their times.Why was Hitler considered a joke in Germany in the 1920s, but voted for by millions in the 30s? Surely it was something to do with the material conditions Berman andWalter so glibly dismiss – or were the Germans subject to a paroxysm of hatred that just happened to coincide with the onset of mass unemployment and economic collapse following theWall Street Crash?

Berman’s, and soWalters’, treatment of history is too simplistic and neat. It brands the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as maniacs, and thereby exculpates everyone else, the societies that produced them, from any responsibility. But if we brand our enemies as ‘irrational evil maniacs’ we will never understand them or what put them in power, and thereby never tackle the causes of their actions. This, surely, is the antithesis of what philosophy should be about.


DEAR EDITOR: I have little interest in comics, just like I have little interest in novels. Both are a form of escapism and entertainment that I don’t need. But I understand that those genres perform a social service. Both relate to and expand the commonalities of the human condition. Thus, in a subliminal way, by appealing to what people have in common – emotions, needs and aspirations – they help facilitate social cohesion, which is essential if we are going to live well together. (I think that the Danish comic depictions of Mohammad helped, in a perverse way, to engage and defuse a lot of animosity between faiths that otherwise would have continued to fester and potentially have led to worse.)

In her book Inventing Human Rights Lynn Hunt writes about the role novels have played in the development of rights. Human rights would never have been established if the mining and cultivation of the common characteristics that make us human, like sympathy and empathy, hadn’t occurred in novels. Hunt describes how Rousseau’s novel Julie (1761) was an early contributor to this process.

If the novel was instrumental in cultivating human rights, I see the comic doing the same thing, but in a different, simpler, way, mainly graphically. Now we have the combination of the two, the graphic novel. Some may see this as a dumbing down from the traditional novel, but in its clipped, pictorial version its messages may be reaching and influencing more readers, producing an additional venue in which to bring a common understanding.


Credit Where It’s Due

DEAR EDITOR: I just wanted to compliment Toni Vogel Carey’s clarifying article in your latest issue (73). I’ve read a lot about the financial crisis, but her essay is a necessary corrective to the misinformed opinions coming from a lot of talking heads in the media, floating in the blogosphere and elsewhere. And she’s not afraid to name names! Perhaps some wise foreign leader – from Norway, for instance, where a natural wisdom seems to have left that country’s finances untouched by this mess – should hand President Obama a copy of Wealth of Nations while the cameras are rolling. Or maybe someone should just send him a copy of this article.


DEAR EDITOR: Philosophers who venture into economics need to be sure of their ground. I’m an amateur philosopher, but a finance professional, and I would say that Toni Vogel Carey got into marshy terrain in trying to lay the blame for the international liquidity crisis on a retired US central banker, relying on a few selective quotes from the US press for her case. She also got some technicalities wrong. Derivatives are merely bets where there is no ownership of the related asset. Collateralised debt instruments, on the other hand, represent real liabilities, albeit thinly spread to mitigate – or hide – the risk. The crisis was systemic; but those to blame, if anyone, are the complacent and mechanistic credit-rating agencies, and the banks who tried to outsmart the regulators for the sake of profit. But it is not true to say that the financial markets are unregulated, as Carey does. The problem is that the (quite strict) controls on capital adequacy did not bite the ingenious instruments that the bankers devised to maximise return at, they hoped, minimal risk. It’s true that the crisis revealed the inherent instability of markets, asMike Fuller says, but it doesn’t take a thinker of the stature of Marx or Keynes to deduce the obvious.

The banks, who had previously resisted and avoided regulation, are now gratefully absorbing the funds the public authorities are throwing at them in an attempt (which seems to be succeeding) to avoid deflation of the scale of the Great Depression. I suspect history will judge former President Bush, and perhaps soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Brown, kindly for their prompt rescue measures. The central banks are also playing a part, in the UK by the mysterious practice of quantitative easing.

Are philosophers any better placed than journalists or economists to comment on the credit crunch? There are epistemological questions, to be sure; but the failures of the credit agencies arose less from the staff of Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s succumbing to Humean scepticism about the impossibility of induction, than from the complacency and self-serving which is characteristic of the financial services industry. In any case, the credit crunch was not only predictable in principle, but was actually predicted in practice, by the venerable but largely unknown Bank of International Settlements. Taleb’s thesis about probability, debated in this letters column recently, sheds no light, because the credit crunch has had huge global impact together with high predictability.

Perhaps political philosophy has benefited most from the credit crunch, because the belated intervention by governments and central banks has ruined the case for neo-liberalism for good. It is open to question how far the neo-liberal agenda ever really dominated politics. The proportion of GDP taken by the public sector remained much the same in the UK throughout Conservative and Labour governments, and it’s wrong to equate Thatcher and Reagan, for the National Health Service has survived in the UK (more or less) as a model leftwing US Democrats can only dream of. The true lesson of the credit crunch is the triumph of neo-socialism.


DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 73 Mike Fuller stated: “Karl Marx famously pronounced: ‘The last cause of all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as compared to the tendency of capitalist production to develop the productive forces in such a way that only the absolute consuming power of society would be their limit.’” In a less well-known pronouncement, quoted in Vince Cable’s 2009 book The Storm, Marx apparently also predicted in Nostradamus-like fashion: “Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and mechanical products, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the state will have to take the road which eventually will lead to communism.” It is unclear where Marx is held to have said these things, but the latter quotation is so laughable it is clearly a forgery. Snopes seem to agree with my opinion, at snopes.com, as does liberation.typepad.com. It is unfortunate that an academic like Dr Mike Fuller was taken in, and that your editorial controls are not strong enough to identify such forgeries.


Tallis: Knowing and Not Knowing

DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Raymond Tallis’ well-argued article about atheism in Issue 73. His ‘bad’ reasons for not believing in God are particularly good. When still a child, brought up in a very Catholic (yet outwardly communist) country, I once asked my mother a rhetorical question: “If I had been born in India, I would have been believing in very different gods, going to different temples, and praying different prayers. So it’s only an accident that I am a Catholic believing in Christ, isn’t it?’ My first seed of doubt and disobedience was sown. Darwin did the rest.

‘Gods’ are created by the human brain, hence the ubiquitous presence of religion in different cultures. The atavistic mind (equivalent to today’s psychotic) was prone to formulate beliefs in response to extraordinary experiences, such as hallucinations or moments of ecstasy. These mystical events feel as real as they are puzzling. Their most frightful quality comes from the collapse of the mind’s categorical framework (particularly the categories of time and space), accompanied by an all-pervading sense of presence and extraordinary meaningfulness. A compelling need for rationalisation renders a willing suspension of belief impossible. A vision or a voice would instantly, uncritically, and without any attempt at ‘falsification’ or other testing, solidify into an idea that ‘explains it all’. A life-saving phantom is thus created! Such ideas can take the comforting, anthropomorphic shape of a personal God, or the frightful theriomorphic shape of a personal Satan.

Hallucinations and other psychotic phenomena were common in early cultures (some believe as late as at the time of Homer).We still observe their remnants in the form of psychoses. It’s this regression to humanity’s earlier emotionality and ‘proto-reasoning’ that lies at the heart of God-creation. If someone came along today and insisted he was the Son of God, wouldn’t he be committed under the Mental Health Act? People have been committed for less!

Mystical experiences are the domain of prophets, who fall in love with their phantasms readily and with great tenacity. Herds of the faithful then follow the charismatic seer... until the next prophet emerges and a new religion is born that often re-works elements of the old. The cauldron of religious ideas contains a limited quantity of archetypal images, regularly recycled. For example, Isis the mother of Horus transforms into Demeter the mother of Core, who in turn becomes Mary the mother of Christ: the dismembered god Osiris metamorphoses into Dionysus, and Dionysus transmutes into Christ, and so on.

But why should our existential aloneness feel so unbearable when it could be downright empowering? As John Milton asked, is it not better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, even if we are our hell’s makers? Unreason (no matter how comforting) can never bring salvation to humanity, whether it comes in a shape of God, a prophet, or Derrida! Refusal to yield to Unreason is, I think, the best reason for not believing in God.


DEAR EDITOR: Towards the end of his explanation of why he is an atheist in Issue 73, Raymond Tallis writes that he is not willing to imprison “a thrilling intuition of transcendent possibilities arising out of (his) sense of the unknown.” Isn’t that a definition of God?


DEAR EDITOR: I am grateful to Raymond Tallis for dispensing with human behaviour as a justification for atheism. To reject the notion of God because some humans act hideously in God’s name is as illogical as refusing to vote because MPs fiddle their expenses, and is also unscientific, because the undeniable evidence is that other people act well in the same cause.

However I would like to take issue with the two reasons he enlists to underpin atheism. First, that the notion of God is incoherent, even comical (I regret his use of the word ‘infantile’). The religious systems with which I am familiar share the notion that God is a mystery, ultimately beyond human ken. Indeed a God fully comprehensible by the human mind would be too small to qualify as divine. I suggest that the more we see God as paradoxical and complex, the more we tread the path of wonder and humility. God’s otherness is not sufficient reason to reject God’s existence, then. This argument, I think, supports agnosticism, but does not prove atheism.

His second reason is that the religions present such a bewildering array of stories about God that it is impossible to choose between them. I agree that this seems impossible, but would suggest an analogy. Imagine that you wanted to understand games involving bats and balls. You could read in your study the rules of cricket, baseball, rounders and stoolball, and decide that the whole family is so varied that the concept of ‘ball game’ is vacuous. Or, you could join a club and start to play; or support a team. Then you would understand that commitment makes the concept come alive. (I think this argument says more about human rootlessness than about atheology, though.)

The question modern atheists do not seem to be able to answer is why atheism itself needs to be promoted. If atheism is right, and religious belief is a fading cultural meme, why bother to write against it? On the other hand, if atheism is wrong, and religious belief survives and even revives, why not question the atheistic worldview rather than support it?


DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis’ ‘I Kid You Not: Knowingness and Other Shallows’ (Issue 72) analyzed an important but rarely recognized social phenomenon – ‘knowingness’.Much has been written about stupidity, ignorance, dogmatism, prejudice, and bigotry, but next to nothing about knowingness, which I see as an important topic for the philosopher, psychologist, sociologist, and historian.

I personally define knowingness as thinking and claiming that one knows more about the world, life, politics, history or whatever, than one really knows, especially for purposes of showing solidarity as a ‘regular guy or gal’ with the person(s) one is addressing, and practicing ‘one-upmanship’ against those foolish or perverse enough to doubt or disagree with one’s own prejudices by dismissing them as naïve, uninformed, sentimental, or unwitting dupes of sinister interests. As Tallis notes, it “also carries an air of cognitive privilege.” Some people, he said, “seem permanently in the know, and – especially when their ‘expertise’ lies in conspiracy theories, or ‘women’, or ‘men’, or ‘sex’ – they are insufferable.”

I have also long noted Tallis’ ‘epistemic community’ of those with an “air of cognitive privilege” of “one who is ‘in the know’.” Most writers so far have focused on the contents of the knowing ones’ diatribes, their specific ideological biases or social and cultural resentments. They have been satisfied, for instance, to simply assert that Sarah Palin is poorly informed about many things and obviously an ultra-conservative Republican. But these writers have rarely ever addressed the psychological and social dynamics of knowingness; the stances or poses assumed by ‘knowing’ speakers or writers, which Tallis did perceptively analyze. Unlike him, they have rarely described the process of binding speakers and hearer(s) into the buddybuddy solidarity of an epistemic community of a regular guy or gal speaking to other regular guys or gals, et cetera.

If I may indulge a bit of sociological speculation, I’ve long felt that knowingness is a folkish or populist reaction to modern industrial society’s increasing reliance on education and expertise. Many ‘plain folks’ – and many unsophisticated, unintellectual ‘rich folks’ too – feel that they are being left behind by everincreasing formal education, certified expertise, and ‘book-learning’. This alienation is found at all social and economic levels: in drawing-rooms and country clubs as well at kitchen tables and in corner taverns; at Ivy League or Oxbridge alumni reunions nostalgically celebrating the ‘rah-rah’ side of college life, as well as in taxicabs and bowling alleys. It especially afflicts, I think, conservative parents dismayed to find that their children going away to college have been ‘seduced by radical ideas’ and ‘led astray by pinko professors’. They respond by claiming that formal education and certified expertise isn’t everything – that the ‘experts’, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘professors’ can be and often are plain wrong: either naïve, or even deliberate, conscious liars serving sinister interests. These parents stress the virtues of common sense, ‘native shrewdness’ and ‘having been around’ that are supposedly devalued by the intellectuals, professors, elite media, and naïve, callow college kids who think that they know everything.


Machine Of The Heart

DEAR EDITOR: I read the articles in Issue 72 surrounding the morality of machines with great interest. I am a practicing anesthesiologist at an institution where left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) are routinely placed in patients dying from heart failure. LVADs are devices that essentially act as an external heart, diverting blood flow from the lungs to the body. These devices can do a remarkable amount of good, allowing some patients to live longer and with a better quality of life. They can also be a costly exercise in futility, worsening quality of life and prolonging the inevitable at the expense of our rapidly-disappearing health care dollars.

Now imagine if these machines were programmed with a ‘moral code’. From what or whose perspective would that moral code derive?

From the perspective of the individual who returns home to his or her family, the LVAD will keep pumping happily. However, from the viewpoint of the patient who is bedbound in the intensive care unit with their other organs failing in grisly succession, the Moral LVAD may or may not shut itself down depending on the patient’s concept of quantity versus quality of life (would shutting down be considered suicide?). Of course, maybe that same ‘decision’ would be made differently if programmed from the perspective of the family who cannot accept the loss of their loved one. And what about from the standpoint of the surgeon who promises the possibility of a longer (if not better) life?Would the LVAD drum on to help prevent compromised patient care? Of course the LVAD would likely be built and programmed in an industrialized nation with resources to spare. Here the LVAD may keep running like a perpetual motion machine. But maybe the programming was farmed out to cheaper labor in developing nations. Their perspective on the utility of resource allocation would shut the LVAD down before it even starts (how many immunizations could fifty thousand dollars buy?).

As medicine continues to progress at a meteoric pace, and the ratio of resources to population dwindles, the role of Machine Morality, Roboethics, Friendly AI, etc. will likely prove to be indispensable to our health care system.


Switching Glasses

DEAR EDITOR: There are two types of people in the world: those willing to commit murder and those not willing to do so. Lawrence Crocker (‘Switching Wine Glasses’, Issue 70) wants to protect the former from the latter. He asserts that to be ethical, those not willing to murder must not switch wine glasses with those actively attempting to murder them. In fact, he says, when one has been intentionally served poisoned wine, one’s absolute certainty that the wine glass contains poison actually enhances the prohibition against switching it with one’s would-be assassin’s. He asserts, “you will be criminally liable if you switch a glass that you know to be poisoned – and you should be.” Turn about, in this case, is not fair play. This reasoning is based on the premise that deadly force is permissible only if ‘the necessity test’ has been met – ie, one must be in “imminent risk of death or serious injury,” before one can respond in kind, it is alleged.

I agree with Crocker on what constitutes an imminent risk, but disagree with him on what justifies immediate and subsequent uses of deadly force. Obviously, any successful use of deadly force in selfdefense would have to be in response to an attack. Self-defense must not be preemptive. And any successful act of selfdefense which takes the life of the attacker, amounts to a dealing out of the death penalty for the attempted offense. Here a life has been taken without the attacker having taken a life, or even having produced serious injury. This is entirely justifiable – yet not by the mere imminence of risk, but rather by the threat itself – and most importantly, because of the forfeiture of the perpetrator’s right to life resulting from the threat he offered. By contrast, if the right to life of the offender remained intact, then the taking of his life would be murder, regardless of when it was taken. Or in other words, the right to life of the mortally-threatening perpetrator must be nullified before selfdefense can be justified. This fact, and not imminent risk, determines justification. Furthermore, the perpetrator’s right to life is not restored once the imminent risk passes, because the intended violation poses an ongoing (although not imminent) threat.

Crocker’s idea that the victim of an attempted murder is morally obligated to harmlessly empty the glass of poison meant for her, is a result of a mistaken assumption that rights to life are absolute. In such a world the imprisonment, execution or killing of anyone for any reason would be impermissible.

To be sure, ethics does not require the use of force under any circumstances, but it also does not prohibit force in the administration of just deserts. It is commonly understood that justice is achieved when the punishment fits the crime. What is more perfectly balanced than knowingly switching wine glasses with a would-be poisoner? Is society not benefited when erstwhile murderers are eliminated from the population, and when potential assassins are justly hoisted on their own petards? The theory that imminent risk alone justifies self defense leads to the remarkable conclusion that we must not switch wine glasses with murderers to avoid natural justice.

Crocker indicates that Penny may serve Quinton the poisoned lemonade he had served her if the probable outcome would cause him only minor discomfort, like a stomach ache; but she may not serve him the deadly poison he intended for her. But if Quinton deserves to get sick for playing a prank on Penny, why doesn’t he deserve to die if he tries to kill her?


DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 70, Lawrence Crocker discussed the ethics of switching glasses if one thought that their drink had been poisoned. He did not believe that this situation came up in real life, and says, “I did not prosecute or defend a single poison switch case, and I did not hear of anyone else handling a case with even the remotest resemblance.” Yet a moment of thought will show that far from being an exceedingly rare occurrence, people are often being warned against the possibility of their drink being poisoned – by date rape drugs. Indeed, ordering two of a certain drink and giving one to the person paying would be an extremely useful way of dealing with the possibility of a spiked drink. If one had doubts, one could simply switch drinks, assuming that both drinks were being consumed.


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