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Trolley Follies • Having Trouble With Rickman • Religion Between The Lines • Painting Pictures, Painting Selves • Shakespearian Emissions

Trolley Follies

Dear Editor: This summer I visited the Sheep Pasture Incline, a mile-long 1-in-7 hill connecting the High Peak Railway with the canal basin near Cromford, Derbyshire. Trucks were winched up and down it by huge cables. In 1888 there was an accident when two trucks became detached from their hauling cable and careered down the hill, ending up in a field beyond the canal. It was with great interest therefore that I read Phil Badger’s article ‘How to get off our Trolleys’ in Issue 86, in which a runaway trolley is heading for a group of men who are unable to get out of the way. If a lever is thrown in time, the trolley can be diverted towards one man, who is also unable to get out of the way. What should the controller do? I would like to offer three thoughts to continue the conversation Mr Badger so helpfully began.

Firstly, does the person in a position to throw the points lever and divert the trolley not have a duty to get out of the control box and throw him/herself in front of the runaway tram? Would Kant see this as a universalisable action? Or would Kant argue that such an action was unethical because the worker used himself as a means to an end? (Of course, there may be valid work-related or personal reasons why the operative cannot leave the control box.) However, on Sheep Pasture Incline the runaway trucks would have reached 120mph by the time they reached the bottom. One human body would not slow them down much. My second observation, therefore, is that in the dilemma as it is usually presented, we have insufficient information. We need to know if the truck would in fact be stopped by one man, or indeed by five. If not, we need to know what or who lies on the track beyond them. Finally, after the 1888 incident, a catch pit was built at the bottom of Sheep Pasture Incline. A worker was put constantly on watch by a set of points so that any runaway trucks could be re-routed into it. (The pit, and the final truck that ended up in it, can still be seen today.) Another ethical issue that should be considered in the trolley debate is, do we not have a clear Kantian duty to ensure that if such an event happens once, it never happens again?

Rev Richard Martin, Strood, Kent

Dear Editor: I agree with much of the Trolley Problem article by Phil Badger in Issue 86, but felt it introduces a lot of Kantian baggage about people being ends in themselves. First of all, then, I would like to consign that great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to the dunghill, on this issue at least. Kant also thought animal suffering did not matter as such. And how could any sane person work out an ethical theory which required us never to tell lies under any circumstance? There were no Nazis around in Kant’s time, but there were plenty of criminals and foreign enemies, I imagine. I wonder, did Kant practise what he preached? Kant’s ideas simply make no sense, for how would they be applied? I wish Phil had been more dismissive of Kant.

Getting onto the the trolley scenarios, there are a couple of points on which I disagree with Phil. I do think that the distinction between commission and omission is important even if from a utilitarian standpoint there is no significant difference between doing something wrong and failing to stop something wrong happening. I think that the trolley experiments prove my point amply: I am pretty sure that most people would agree with me that one’s failure to plunge into a river to save someone from drowning (if one is a strong swimmer) is condemnable, but it is not nearly as condemnable as pushing the person into the river in the first place. Phil’s counterexample is the doctor whose brief is to minimise his dying patient’s suffering. Phil says that omitting to provide feed and drink might cause more suffering than actively killing him, and therefore active killing is more merciful than inactive killing. I would not disagree on this, but I think the point Phil misses is that that the clinician is a specialist who is specifically charged with care of his terminally ill patient, and knows the effect of his decisions. It is wrong to make analogies with someone who unexpectedly finds themself sitting at a junction box having to decide if one person or five persons should live. And the evidence of trolleyology is that people do distinguish between letting die and actively killing. The point about the clinician is a legal one: in the absence of rational euthanasia laws, it is safer to refrain from anything which looks like deliberate murder.

On the other hand, as regards the Fat Man thought experiment, Phil is not quite right in saying that the agent desires the death of the Fat Man, who might conceivably survive being thrown onto the line to stop the train. This is where the collateral damage idea is relevant. The Fat Man is almost certainly being sacrificed, but unlike Phil’s cases of the death penalty or torturing suspects or their kids, his death or suffering is not actually the intention, but is instead a collateral effect of pushing him. It is the Fat Man’s fatness which is the key issue.

My bias towards utilitarianism makes me impatient with Phil’s comments over issues like the death penalty and torture. I am against both torture and the death penalty, but I think that if there were incontrovertible evidence that the death penalty saved many lives, I would have to think hard of utilitarian reasons to oppose it. Torture is different from the death penalty because it is possible, and I think desirable, to outlaw it entirely on the legal level, and yet be aware that exceptional situations might lead to, and even justify, exceptional remedies. Thus, ultimately, it does come down to numbers. I suppose I am regrettably saying that torture of a terrorist’s child would be justified if it were undisputably the one way to save thousands of lives. (But I don’t think that such a scenario would in fact ever arise: there would always be a way to use psychological warfare which made the terrorist erroneously believe that his child was being tortured.) If the numbers are big enough, then I am afraid that the most horrible things would be justified to save lives. In fact, however, life is very seldom like that: we ordinary folk are unlikely to be in these godlike situations, and so our natural inclination is to do nothing unless we are very sure our actions will have the result we desire.

Peter Ellway, by email

Having Trouble With Rickman

Dear Editor: Perhaps Peter Rickman (86) is somewhat misguided himself in his criticism of Anthony Quinton on Kantian epistemology. He argues that Quinton appears to have “a hankering for an ultimate reality outside the terms of our experiences which matches the objects as we experience them.” He then criticises Quinton for taking Kant to task for denying this can be achieved. However, although Kant denied the possibility of us having knowledge of it, he still maintained that there was this inaccessible realm beyond our experience, which our human truth claims either matched or didn’t, although we could never find out which. But what exactly does this mean? If our knowledge is dependent on our uniquely human make-up, then knowledge-claims for outside the human realm become incomprehensible. If there is no possibility of knowledge of what is outside or beyond our experience (to claim such would involve a clear paradox), then it simply creates confusion for Rickman (or Quinton) to talk of “stepping outside of our human perspective to see what lies outside it.” To think in this way merely perpetuates the problem. Perhaps the ultimate trouble with Kant originated with his refusal to drop the notion of this second ‘higher’ realm of reality?

Kaz Knowlden, London

Religion Between The Lines

Dear Editor: After reading John Holroyd’s criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (TGD) in his article ‘Between Dawkins and God’ in Philosophy Now Issue 86, I wondered if he and I had read the same book. So I set about re-reading – after all, I had read it originally in 2006, its year of publication.

For his critique, Holroyd focuses on Dawkins’ claims about the harms caused by religion, and that religious belief is a matter of blind faith. As to harms, Holroyd lists his objections to these alphabetically. I’ll paraphrase Holroyd’s criticisms (in italics) and then respond. In so doing my intention is to indicate what seem to me to be some significant misreadings of Dawkins.

A. The word ‘religion’ is used with insufficient discrimination, from a Western perspective, and over-generalises.

Dawkins is quite clear about his field: “For most of my purposes, all three Abrahamic religions can be treated as indistinguishable. Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind.” (TGD, p.37). He is also clear what God hypothesis he challenges: “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” (TGD, p.31). Yet in the article, Dawkins is accused of “a very narrow scientistic, near-deistic view of God, as some supernatural entity who brings the universe into existence and intervenes on occasions.”. Well, he is a scientist, and this is the hypothesis he’s challenging!

B. Separating out religion from other cultural factors as a cause of harms is problematic.

Of course, religions can be so embedded in cultures that the exclusivity of their effects is difficult to discern. That’s not the point. Rather, it is that the seemingly uncritically-held beliefs and practices which are discernible contribute to harm, by virtue of their lack of veracity and dubious ethical foundations.

C. Dawkins’ claim of religious harm has “little if any base in ethical theory.”

TGD’s Chapter 6, ‘The roots of morality: Why are we good?’ addresses a range of ethical theories and their bases, for example, ‘If there is no God, why be good?’

D. Dawkins’ evidence is selective and amounts to little more than “umpteen anecdotes rather than hard data.”

Perhaps what Holroyd had in mind here in TGD are Chapter 8, ‘What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?’ and Chapter 9, ‘Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion’. The content of each chapter amounts to rather more than ‘umpteen anecdotes’. As to “why not also look at evidence that might suggest that religion can be beneficial?” – would this not fall foul of the apparent problem cited earlier by Holroyd, of separating distinctively religious causes from the cultural? However, in the clearly religiously-inspired cases to which he alludes, it is surely the ethical underpinnings that are the root of any benefits. Furthermore, ‘hard data’ in respect of religious sources are notoriously difficult to come by.

E. Likening ‘religion to a virus’, i.e. Dawkins’s meme, is “irresponsible” and, like D above, the evidence is poor.

In his chapter ‘Tread softly, because you tread on my memes’, Dawkins is more speculative and yet more precise than this criticism leads one to believe:

“I am not saying that memes necessarily are close analogues of genes, only that the more like genes they are, the better will meme theory work; and the purpose of this section is to ask whether meme theory might work for the special case of religion.” (TGD, p.191)

Finally, there is Holroyd’s claim that Dawkins is ‘weak’ in respect of the criterion of ‘disinterestedness’ – “To not mind where one’s investigations take you, to love the adventure of intellectual discovery wherever it leads”. The evidence cited and discussed in TGD, Chapter 3 ‘Arguments for God’s existence’, and in Chapter 4 ‘Why there almost certainly is no God’, indicate otherwise. The ‘almost’ is disinterestedly-significant: if Dawkins had found evidence for the existence of God, he would have said so.

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Dear Editor: I particularly enjoyed Carl Murray’s ‘The Dead German Philosopher’s Club’ in your last issue, especially as it reminded me of Wittgenstein’s claim that the “philosophical problems that exercise us are examples of language going on holiday.” On reading it I realised exactly what had been worrying me about the second half of an earlier piece in the same issue by John Holroyd, where he was discussing the question ‘Is religious faith a matter of blind faith?’ Thanks to my online subscription, I copied the text of this article into a word processor and used the search and replace function to change all the occurrences of the word ‘faith’ into the word ‘belief’. As I had suspected, the meaning of the argument did not seem to change, confirming my suspicion that the author is guilty of an equivocation. As I argued in Issue 85 Letters, the word ‘faith’ is notoriously misused. Although I am sympathetic to the general thrust of John Holroyd’s argument – and acknowledge that he does discuss Terry Eagleton’s more sophisticated definition of faith – the article does a poor job of distinguishing between faith proper and the rhetorical characterisation of faith as ‘a belief I do not agree with’. In fact, rather than being a type of belief, faith is the jump from argument to conviction based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Faith is therefore not the belief in itself, but rather the process of settling on – or becoming convinced by – a certain belief. As such, ‘blind faith’ is an example of an epistemological error, not a metaphysical one. For this reason although I remain sympathetic to John Holroyd’s overall contention that many people’s religious faith is an example of ‘blind faith’, at the same time I maintain that no matter how common this may be, any argument that uses this observation to dispute the existence of God is merely an ad hominem attack on believers. John Holroyd is not the first to get himself tied in a knot over this issue.

Simon Kolstoe, Botley, Hants

Painting Pictures, Painting Selves

Dear Editor: I especially enjoyed reading Pauline O’Flynn’s article in Issue 85, ‘Spinning Narratives, Spinning Selves’. She might be interested in R.G. Collingwood’s Principles of Art (1938), in which he develops a coherent theory of imagination and language. His conclusion is that art is essentially expression, and all forms of expression are also forms of language. Language originates with the expression of emotion and never completely loses that element. So the comprehension of a work of art is not just intellectual but also emotional, and the validity of a work of art is related to its honesty, clarity and vitality. When we look at the Mona Lisa, for example, our rational intuition includes a sense of its emotional presence.

One of the traditional tasks of philosophy has been to achieve a better understanding of ourselves. Presumably, this would include a better understanding of our emotions. We learn to recognize our emotions, just as we learn to recognize our thoughts, by expressing them.

D.N. Dimmitt, Lawrence, Kansas

Shakespearian Emissions

Dear Editor: I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Tallis’s ‘Introduction to Incontinental Philosophy’ in Issue 85. I’ve never seen such a paean to peeing, or such erudition on micturition. I also liked the novel idea of defining humans by reference to our holes and not our souls.

Prof Tallis says to pee or not to pee lies in our control, but he doesn’t mention the perils of dreams. This prompts me to suggest what Hamlet might have thought on a cold winter’s night:

“To pee, or not to pee: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to shun
The soft embrace of sleep, roll out of bed,
And fumble for the pot, then when ‘tis done,
Climb back in bed and wait till sleep returns,
Empty and dry awhile, a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d, and yet, withal,
Fully awake and shivering with cold;
Or quiet the body’s swelling call, ignore
The urge, and try to sleep. To lie, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that troubled sleep what dreams may come
Of loosing pent-up bladder for relief;
Such dreams may trick the fuddled mind to turn
Dream into truth, and wake ‘twixt sodden sheets.
Thus continence makes cowards of us all.”

Ian Turnbull, Canberra

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