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Letters

The Queen of Regency Morality? • A Matter of Rights • Against, And Yet For, Equality • Artless Science • Eternal Nietzsche • Inadequate Moral Responses • Intercontinental Philosophy War • Further Quantum Immaterialism

The Queen of Regency Morality?

Dear Editor: As a young literary scholar with an interdisciplinary bent and a keen interest in philosophy, I was delighted to find that philosophers such as Thomas Rodham in ‘Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher’ in Issue 94 also find literature of value. However, I would caution Rodham and his readers not to so quickly relegate Jane Austen’s ‘romantic comedy storylines’ to the background, and rather to see them as integral to the teaching program she undertakes in virtue ethics. There are many ways to demonstrate this; but perhaps the best way is using Rodham’s own perceptive observation of the key role played by Austen’s omniscient narrative gaze. It not only penetrates the thoughts of characters, but entices a response in the reader, such as Rodham’s ‘shiver’ at the thought of what such a gaze would reveal if directed upon him. If we could see our own prejudices, pettiness and superciliousness clearly, wouldn’t we laugh at what we beheld? And isn’t this, after all, the internalizing mechanism by which Austen demonstrates her moral message to her readers? In other words, isn’t Austen’s larger achievement to avoid disciplining us in the manner of the schoolmarm, instead adopting the acute narrative prowess of the town gossip, and the stinging wit of the parlor-room quipster?

Lee A. Flamand, by email


Dear Editor: I was intrigued by Thomas Rodham’s discussion of Jane Austen as a virtue ethicist, as Austen has always struck me as unusually limited in her moral perceptions, particularly for her times. Yet linking her with virtue ethics seemed appropriate, as this system also seems to have certain limitations.

Let me take her Mansfield Park as my example. In this novel we are expected to sympathise with Fanny Price because she is an impoverished member of the middle classes (as is usual with Austen’s heroines), although by the standards of the time her life is really quite pleasant. However, Austen’s consistent line is that such people deserve better treatment from the wealthy middle classes or minor aristocracy. Whether this can be seen as an ethical position is doubtful. particularly when it as recognised as entirely class-based. Austen has no interest or concern with the impoverished in any other class. The head of the household, Sir Thomas Bertram, is a slave owner who for part of the book is absent dealing with a slave rebellion. Dates are important here. The book was published in 1814; in 1807 the Slave Trade Act had abolished the trade throughout the British Empire, leading to reasonable expectations among slaves that slavery itself would be abolished – which it was in 1833. Yet Austen is clearly taking sides with the conservative, anti-Enlightenment thinkers of her day, who were opposed to the new ideas of liberty. This is hardly a virtuous choice (even the founder of conservatism, Edmund Burke, approved of abolishing slavery). One also hears a debate about ‘bright young things’ going out late at night to visit friends. The virtuous hero wishes to veto this on the grounds that it would mean getting the horses out unnecessarily. Getting the coachman out is not considered. On another occasion, Sir Thomas hears that Fanny does not have a fire lit in her room each morning, thus being treated like the poor relation she is. He orders that a fire be lit for her. That this would be by a young girl who would have to get up in the small hours to do so is not seen as a moral problem.

All of Austen’s books are full of these situations because Austen did not believe that everyone counted as a full person. To count as worthy of moral consideration, one had to be at least of middle class status (although not necessarily have a middle-class income). This would not be seen as a moral position to many contemporary writers, such as Blake, Shelley, or Tennyson.

This brings us to the idea of virtue ethics. Given her particular views on society and personhood, Austen can clearly be seen as making moral decisions. Given Aristotle’s views on who runs society (he says only those who are invested in society ought to have a say in running it), I feel that he would probably agree with Austen. However, a Kantian or Utilitarian could only see Austen as representing obsolete views that differentiated between the moral worth of individuals. Perhaps that was Jane Austen’s point – to demolish the new and immoral tendencies of her times. Perhaps she was anticipating Nietzsche, and should be feted as ahead of her times. Or perhaps she had the parochial insensitivity of most chick-lit authors.

Neil Phillips, Bognor Regis


A Matter of Rights

Dear Editor: Dr Smith’s article about abortion in Issue 94, ‘A Matter of Consent’, seems to contain a number of non sequiturs. For example, he confuses the right to resist non-consensual use of one’s body with the right to resist rape. Not having the first right would not make one’s rape ‘morally legitimate’, as he says. An analogy would be if a woman is given the choice of submitting to being raped or having her children killed. She may consent to the rape on the ground that she is not willing to resist nonconsensual use of her own body if that means the death of her children – but that would not make the rape legitimate.

The main point is that there is no question of an absolute right to resist nonconsensual use of one’s own body. For instance, the criminal – or for that matter, the suspected criminal – has no right to resist arrest. Similarly, the woman who has an unwanted foetus does not have an absolute right to get rid of it; but that does not mean that she never has the right to resist nonconsensual use of her body.The right depends on the circumstances, and so Dr Smith’s problem does not arise. Denying her rights might ‘objectivise’ her, as he argues, but limiting them doesn’t.

The second main point is that there are two persons involved in the situation of possible abortion. The other one, as Dr Smith recognises, is the foetus. The foetus also has the right not to have his or her body nonconsensually used. That is why the question is one of choice between two persons each having a right.

David Pitts, Surrey


Dear Editor: Simon Smith’s thoughtful essay makes a good case for framing the abortion debate in terms of a woman’s right “to determine the consensual use” of her body. Dr Smith further argues – convincingly, I think – that to deny women bodily autonomy is to legitimize various acts such as rape, and to objectify not only women, but all of us. But what is missing from Dr Smith’s argument is a richer discussion of rights. What do we mean by a ‘right’, and are there responsibilities attending any given right? Are there any limitations on a given right which society may justly impose? So, for example, my right to free speech does not allow me to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or to express myself through a loud speaker at three in the morning. Historically, most political theorists and ethicists have understood rights to also impose obligations on both the guarantor and the recipient of the right. My right to free speech imposes the obligation to avoid libel, or slanderous speech, for example.

Let’s stipulate that women have a right to determine the consensual use of their bodies,and, therefore, a right to abortion (a position I happen to endorse). Can we also envision some justifiable constraints on this putative right to abortion? For example, can we envision a society that might insist on a woman discussing her decision to abort her fetus with the biological father, if he is known? (What, if any, rights does the father have in the matter? This ‘three-body problem’ is qualitatively different to the ‘violinist’ scenario discussed by Dr Smith.) Or can we envision a society that does not permit abortion when the sole reason for the request is to terminate a female fetus? In China, where about a million female fetuses are aborted each year, this is far from a theoretical question (see, e.g. Daniel Goodkind, ‘Should Prenatal Sex Selection be Restricted?: Ethical Questions and Their Implications for Research and Policy’, Population Studies 53). In such gender-based abortions, it is not the case that the woman refuses consensual use of her body by a fetus per se; she simply chooses to limit such consent to male fetuses. In such instances, does society itself have any basis for asserting a countervailing right to preserve females, so the long-term viability of the society is maintained?

As a physician, I am not arguing that we impose any specific limitations on a woman’s right to an abortion. But as a bioethicist, I raise these questions for Dr Smith to consider. Rights, after all, are not absolute and unqualified: rather, they are limited in scope and contingent on reciprocal responsibilities.

Dr Ronald Pies MD, Syracuse, NY


Dear Editor: Enough is enough. I enjoy Philosophy Now, even when I disagree with the opinions expressed within its pages, as I find worth in being stretched by opposing worldviews. However, Simon Smith’s piece cannot go unchallenged. I realise I’m reading philosophy, but the abstract claims put forward here do need dragging back into the realms of reality. To Dr Smith, when millions like me propound arguments against abortion, we’re providing “moral justification for domestic violence, rape and murder.” It seems that what I thought were considered opinions was simply me negating the moral status of every human being. On the contrary, I find Smith’s delving back to 1971 for someone else’s hypothetical scenario of being kidnapped to keep alive a violinist disingenuous. There is no record of such an occurrence having happened, nor is it ever likely to; and yet Smith uses this example to claim that those who oppose abortion deny what ‘personhood’ is. I realise that Smith is dealing in abstracts rather than real lives, but if his logic is followed, is the protection of all human life therefore a similar denial? Following Smith’s logic means that whenever a sacrifice is made not in our best interests but in the best interests of someone else, we’re denying personhood. The parent who cares for their child with Downs’ Syndrome, or the husband who looks after his sick wife, is denying their and our personhood, apparently. But I value human life over vague concepts of ‘personhood’.

John Cheek, Northgate, Chester


Against, And Yet For, Equality

Dear Editor: In the piece ‘Equality’ in Issue 94, Helen McCabe argues against equalization of utility (or ‘happiness’) by using a thought experiment where a man receives more pleasure from eating quail’s eggs and driving Ferraris than do a larger group of people from eating ordinary toast and orange juice. This supposedly forces us to examine if it is ethical to take the resources from the larger group, or possibly even starve them, so that the hedonistic man can attain his pleasure. I contend that this, and McCabe’s general analysis of utility equalization, misses out on who and what equal utility would really concern itself with if it was seriously applied. For example, even in developed countries there exist sizeable populations of jobless people who may be in poverty or close to it. An obviously larger happiness would result in helping these people than if the same funds were used to purchase Ferraris or rare eggs. This fact is magnified by great intensity because of the existence of extremely destitute and undeveloped countries. Until all people are lifted from poverty, it seems irrational to question utility equalization itself by examining Ferraris and expensive food. Utilitarians, especially negative utilitarians, generally analyze this problem by prioritizing the people who suffer over those who seek hedonistic happiness.

Dino Mehic, California


Artless Science

Dear Editor: The ‘instabilities in nature’ of Brown and Hubbard in Issue 94 are largely the result of chaotic phenomena, which governs virtually all activity in nature, from earthquakes and the weather to biological and cosmological evolution. The best exposition is probably that given by Paul Davies in The Cosmic Blueprint. Chaos is deterministic yet unpredictable. Davies explains why this is so: the initial conditions, which determine the ultimate outcome of an event, are impossible to mathematically pin down. Erwin Schrödinger, in What is Life?, explained how most of physics is statistical: not just quantum phenomena like radioactivity, but also the behaviour of gases, fluids, magnetism, and the second law of thermodynamics. In fact he coined a term, ‘statistico-deterministic’, which can be applied to both quantum and classical physics. As Schrödinger points out, it’s the sheer number of undeterminable molecules involved that allows the physics to be so predictable on a macro scale.

Brown and Hubbard reference Popper and Kuhn to support their thesis that ‘scientific truth’ is an illusion. Popper’s criterion of falsifiability simply means that a theory or hypothesis needs to be testable, and a test has to be able to fail as well as succeed to be scientific. Kuhn’s thesis of scientific revolutions belies the fact that there is usually continuity from one paradigm to another, unless the previous paradigm was completely false, as Ptolemy’s epicyclic solar system was.

In a not-so-recent issue of New Scientist (24/11/12), Eric Scerri quotes John Worrall from the London School of Economics saying that the “underlying mathematical structure” of theories “survive when scientific theories change.” He gives the example of Fresnell’s theory of light, involving aether, being replaced by Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory – yet some of Fresnell’s mathematics can be found in Maxwell’s equations, although the aether is no longer required. This is true for other scientific revolutions, like Newton’s theory of gravity to Einstein’s, where the inverse square law of gravitational attraction still applies. It was well known, even before Einstein, that the inverse square law is a direct consequence of the fact that we live in a three-dimensional spatial universe. In other words, the law is a scientific truth.

Comparing science to art is also fraught with misconceptions. Art is a projection of the human imagination onto the external world, in music and storytelling as well as visual projects. Any comparison with the natural world is one we create along with our art.

Paul Mealing, Melbourne


Dear Editor: Stuart Greenstreet (Issue 93) states that ‘property dualism… has the virtue of making our freedom and autonomy purely natural phenomena’. But if freedom is a natural phenomenon, it is not free: it is constrained by nature.

James Malcolm, Surrey


Eternal Nietzsche

Dear Editor: I very much enjoyed Kathleen O’Dwyer’s ‘The Challenge of Eternal Recurrence’ in Issue 93. Through historical facts, poetry and thoughtful analysis, Dr O’Dwyer made this article edifying and thought-provoking.

Always in the back of my mind are single moments. Remembering when and where I saw something breathtakingly beautiful. Arriving at a new place or town instantly making me feel alive. Affirming that I am indeed glad to be alive. We try to hang onto those moments, recall them to get us through the dark patches. Moments when suddenly there is beauty before us are the best. But we also have soul-crushing moments. They come in many forms, and are remembered too. Clearly they are part of my whole – indeed, ‘Life is a continuum’ – moments strung together making it a whole. But I reject ‘embracing’ them all when challenged to do so. I know the bad moments or times occurred, but I would not want them to occur again and again. Things happen. Move forward, and try to accept what comes with grace. In my ‘loneliest of loneliness’ I try to decide my place in the world and what is right for me.

Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, IL


Dear Editor: Most discussions of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence overlook an important point. If your life indeed did recur in exactly the same way, you would not know it: if you have no recollection of any such previous life now (as, I surmise, none of us does) then by definition, you would have no recollection of it in a future recurrence.

Moreover, to curse such recurrence, or to triumphantly to affirm it, is not to curse or affirm it for yourself. Any future person living the exact same life as you are living now would not be you, as there would be no strand of personal continuity between that person and you. So it is not despair to curse your life as being unworthy of being lived again, it is compassion; and it is not selfishness or egotism to affirm your life as being worthy of being lived again, it is benevolence. The situation reminds me of Kant’s injunction to universalize the maxim of your actions, except in this case it’s your whole life you are universalizing. In any event, the fundamental point remains: if you don’t like your life, change it.

Bill Meacham, Austin, TX


Dear Editor: Thank you for the excellent Nietzsche issue (93). I was particularly pleased to see Eva Cybulska’s use of the word ‘preach’ in reference to Nietzsche’s style. I first encountered Nietzsche in New Guinea, where I worked as a fundamentalist missionary for nearly thirteen years. I’d heard so much horror attributed to the man that I had to read for myself just what he had written. Apart from his Genealogy of Morals, I found so much of his writing held a homiletic tone replete with beautiful poetry, on par with the King James Version of the Bible. As I read him, I also wondered if Nietzsche had a mental illness long before his breakdown, for, again, so much of his writing reminded me of the mad prophets of the Old Testament. I did some research on Eva Cybulska’s work, and see that she too saw madness in the great philosopher before his slide into silence. At any rate, now that I am an unbeliever – thanks in part to the writings of Nietzsche – I thank you for this lovely series of articles.

Mike Cordle, by email


Dear Editor: It was a delight to read Yahia Lababidi’s article in Issue 94 about the soul-twinship of the great provocateurs Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. Born exactly a decade apart, both died the same year, 1900, and their fame has proved immortal. Brilliant classicists, both were steeped in the heroic tales of Homer from a young age. What might come as a surprise, however, is that the two amoralists felt deep affinity with Jesus Christ. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche commented on Christ’s trial and crucifixion: “He does not resist, he does not defend his right, he takes no step which might ward off the worst; on the contrary, he provokes it… Not to resist, not to be angry, not to hold responsible – but to resist not even the evil one – to love him.” Having provoked his own ‘crucifixion’ at the Old Bailey, Wilde confessed in De Profundis: “I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then – curious as it will no doubt sound – I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul, it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.”

Eva Cybulska, London


Inadequate Moral Responses

Dear Editor: I felt great frustration whilst reading Terri Murray’s article in Philosophy Now 93. She writes in response to a previous article by Professors Savulescu and Persson, which advocated human moral enhancement through, say, drugs, due to humanity having evolved mainly to respond to the moral needs of close communities and with a short-term focus, thus being poorly morally equipped to deal with our dire future of mass warfare and environmental catastrophe. Murray argues instead that moral character “is the product of an agent’s free choices, not of their biological endowments” – thus, she holds that with the right education, global catastrophe is neither inevitable nor particularly likely, because we can choose to respond in more appropriate ways. She cites the environmental movement as evidence of such a response. However, this is a naïve and dangerous perspective, as it fails to acknowledge the inadequate nature of such responses, whether at individual, group, or state level. To pretend otherwise is complacent and unrealistic.

We do not have to accept whole-scale evolutionary determinism to recognise that we are at the very least influenced by naturalistic, biological factors, just as all other mammals are. To deny this under the banner of existentialist freedom is to indulge in dangerous wishful thinking. We may well have a measure of personal moral freedom, but to pretend that this is the whole story of ethics is bunkum.

Kaz Knowlden, Brockley, London


Intercontinental Philosophy War

Dear Editor: I am bothered by Emery Cournand’s depiction of the ‘war’ between empiricism and rationalism in his article ‘The Journey’ in Issue 92. He seems contemptuous of empiricists. For example, Cournand states that the Continental, or rationalist, school, “has been always aware of its shortcomings, and has tried to compensate by being more rigorous in its approach. However, empirical philosophers in general have had a bias towards materialism and hedonism.” Putting aside for now the non sequitur, can Cournand be serious in implying that empiricists, such as Locke or Hume, were less rigorous than their continental peers, and were unaware of their shortcomings?

Bertrand Russell contrasts the two schools in his A History of Western Philosophy: “The difference of methods may be characterized as follows: In Locke or Hume, a comparatively modest conclusion is drawn from a broad survey of many facts, whereas in Leibniz [a Continental] a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle. In Leibniz, if the principle is completely true and the deductions are entirely valid, all is well; but the structure is unstable, and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins. In Locke and Hume, on the contrary, the base of the pyramid is on the solid ground of observed fact… and a flaw here or there can be rectified without total disaster.” Russell’s assessment suggests that neither school has a monopoly on rigor. Yes, he was an empiricist; but he was also fair-minded. As for a “bias towards materialism and hedonism,” it is true that Locke, and many empiricists believed pleasure to be good. However, that is far from hedonism, which carries a more profligate and licentious connotation. In fact, Democritus, a renowned materialist, was a cheerful man who disapproved of hedonistic behavior, and warned that sex could overwhelm consciousness.

Cournand also claims that empiricists, unlike rationalists, “constantly place the artificially-created materialistic and hedonistic needs of the individual… above the general well-being of the community.” But if I correctly understand modern philosophy, the rise of rationalism brought with it subjectivism and an emphasis on the individual. Empiricism, on the other hand, represents a broader and more objective outlook.

That is not what really bothers me about Cournand’s view. It is his contempt for empiricists that I find unphilosophical. I suggest he reflects on Russell’s approach: “In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second.”

Chris Christensen, Portland OR


Further Quantum Immaterialism

Dear Editor: In response to the article by Graham Smetham in PN 93, it’s about time we began to take seriously the skeletons in the quantum mechanical closet!

Most attempts to explain the counter-intuitive facts of quantum mechanics have begun with the supposition that the physical world exists first, and our subjective conscious experience must somehow arise deterministically out of the rules of physics. This has left a number of paradoxes, for example probabilistic determinism vs free will, which find only clumsy resolution when physics alone must explain everything. Heaven forbid that we should burden our theory of everything with additional metaphysical assumptions! Antecedent mind is precisely such an additional metaphysical assumption. But if physical evidence suggests its possibility, why not give it a try?

The first conundrum resolved by an antecedent mind is why the universe should be so comprehensible. A matter-independent mind also provides an arena for free will precisely because mind is not itself grounded in the laws of the physical. But mind does not explain everything. It is agnostic with respect to morality, and it is not itself will. Explaining these things would require further metaphysical assumptions.

Matthew Rapaport, by email


Dear Editor: Until I read ‘On Known-to-be-False’ (Graham Smetham, Issue 93) I had happily swept the concept of quantum mechanics under my mental carpet; but after reading said article, I realised I must try harder. I just about grasp there being a level of immaterial potentiality which is a substrate of what we perceive to be our material world, and that this is where our consciousness may reside; but what I cannot grasp is that ‘matter needs minds to determinately exist’. Is this ‘mind’ universal, and if so, where do the minds of individual human beings fit in? And do they pre-exist the bodies we think they cause to exist? If so, why bother with perceived bodies at all? Even more, why bother with the whole process of perceived procreation; or with the universe? Does a wall need to be there to be perceived, for example? If not, then what is happening if I, a sighted person, see it, but a blind person next to me doesn’t see it? Is it there or not, and to whom? And if it’s my consciousness that is creating the material world, why can’t I make it go away? I’m a retired dentist. It would have been wonderful for my patients if they could have used their consciousness to de-materialise a rotten tooth!

Mrs Pat Caddick, by email

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