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Contemporary Confucian
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6 Plato: A Theory of Forms

David Macintosh explains Platos famous idea about ideas.
8 Picking a Fight With Plato
Ed Fraser argues that Platos theory of knowledge is circular
10 Platos Just State
Chris Wright critiques Platos view of the ideal society
14 Addicts, Mythmakers and Philosophers
Alan Brody considers the Socratic explanation of addiction
18 Platos Neurobiology
Elizabeth Laidlaw sees parallels with modern theories of the brain


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ISSUE 90 May/June 2012

Jean-Jacques FICTION
Mommys Cookies
Rousseau is 300! 6 My
Courtney Gibbons tells us the true source of Platos inspiration
on 28th June. See page 32

May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 3

Editorial Plato on a Plate


he bare facts are these. Plato was a wrestler. The name

by which we know him was his ring name, meaning
Broad Shoulders. At some point he fell in with a scruffy and
talkative old fellow called Socrates. Socrates and his friends
used to gather in the Agora the marketplace in Athens to
discuss philosophy. Socrates himself claimed to know nothing,
but made a habit of questioning prominent citizens about
their opinions, dialogues which often ended with his victims
hopelessly contradicting themselves or otherwise looking like
idiots. This made him about as popular as you would expect.
Socrates called himself the gadfly, stinging the Athenians so
they wouldnt fall asleep. He became a well-known figure, the
subject of a satirical play by Aristophanes (The Clouds). Then
Athens lost a war to Sparta and a short, grim period of
oligarchical rule (the Thirty Tyrants) followed before
democracy was restored. However, in an atmosphere of
recrimination the Athenians searched for the causes of their
downfall, and some blamed Socrates for having undermined
the moral basis of society. Socrates had a pretty good civic
record not only was he a decorated war hero, but in the
time of the Thirty Tyrants he had shown his integrity by
refusing to participate in the arrest of a fellow citizen but an
aristocratic pupil of his had had close connections to the
oligarchical regime, and afterwards Socrates enemies used
this to taint him by association. In a public trial Socrates was
found guilty of inventing new gods and corrupting the youth
and sentenced to death. His friends urged him to flee, but he
refused, and was executed in 399BC.
Socrates enraged followers reacted with one of the most
successful literary protests in history: several of them wrote
dialogues in which Socrates was the main protagonist. It was
as if they wanted to show that Socrates detractors had failed
to silence his voice or his persistent, irritating questioning.
Only the dialogues by Plato and by Xenophon have survived.
Platos first Socratic dialogue was an account of Socrates trial.
As the trial was a matter of public record and fresh in the
memories of many Athenians, this dialogue (the Apology) is
presumably a fairly faithful representation of Socrates own
views. However, as time passed and Plato wrote more and
more dialogues, he probably used them increasingly as a
vehicle for his own philosophical arguments, though still
expressed through the mouth of the character Socrates.
Plato himself became a famous philosopher and public
figure who was invited to write constitutions for several Greek
city states. He established a philosophy school in a grove
dedicated to a legendary hero, Hecademos. The school took
its name from the grove, becoming known as the Academy,
4 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

and is widely regarded as the first university in the Western

world. One of Platos students there was Aristotle.
Plato led a lively and adventurous life, which included
being appointed advisor to the tyrant of Sicily, being captured
by pirates and being sold as a slave. (Fortunately a benefactor
spotted him in the slave auction, bought him and set him
free). In his dialogues Plato discusses many of the central
questions of philosophy What can we know? How should
we live? How should society be organised? What is love?
What is courage? Is God good? Platos dialogues are studded
with brilliant thought experiments and arresting insights, and
are certainly among the greatest classics of world literature.
His theories became so powerfully influential that the 20th
century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described
the whole of subsequent philosophy as footnotes to Plato.
Despite this, it has somehow taken us twenty years to get
around to having an issue of Philosophy Now dedicated to
Plato. There is certainly plenty to discuss. We wont get into
the whole subject of which of the views discussed originated
with Socrates and which with Plato. Platos most famous
theories and thought experiments are contained in his
dialogue, the Republic. As a blueprint for an ideal society it
strikes most modern eyes as pretty totalitarian (see Chris
Wrights article on page 10), but its arguments about justice,
the nature of knowledge, and the metaphysical basis of reality
are powerful and philosophically acute. It contains one of
Platos key ideas, the Theory of Forms, which David
Macintosh explains on page 6. It also contains Platos most
famous thought experiment, the Allegory of the Cave. Edward
Fraser argues that Platos theory in the Meno about how we
acquire (or rather, recollect) knowledge is circular. The two
following articles concern ways in which Platos dialogues are
still relevant to debates going on today: Alan Brody discusses
Socrates ideas on addiction and its treatment; and Elizabeth
Laidlaw explores parallels between Platos theory of the psyche
and modern neuroscience, and then uses this as a basis for a
brain-based approach to ethics.
Also in this issue, Stuart Greenstreet discusses C.S. Lewiss
astonishingly ambitious book Miracles. At the end he points
out striking similarities between Lewiss picture of human
reason and the fundamental constants of modern physics.
Both seem distinct from nature; both are a prerequisite for
science; both are necessary, universal and unchanging. It
struck me as I read that paragraph that he could just as well
have been describing Platos Forms. They are everywhere and
nowhere, they are eternal and they fundamentally determine
the nature of our cosmos. Assuming that they exist, of course.

Ruth Barcan Marcus Alan Turing Birthday

Party Festival Fun & Frolics Wikipedia
philosophy editor makes a million edits
News reports by Sue Roberts.
Ruth Barcan Marcus
The logician Ruth Barcan Marcus died
on 19th February, aged 90. Born in the
Bronx, Marcus was a professor at Yale
University for many years. She made original contributions to many areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, philosophy
of language, and theory of knowledge, but
she is particularly known for her groundbreaking work on quantified modal logic.
She was one of the first women philosophers to have a major impact on what has
been seen as a particularly male-dominated branch of philosophy.
Though some found her energy and
strong will intimidating, former colleagues
and students praised her warmth and her
supportive attitude. One member of
Philosophy Nows editorial board, Prof.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, is a former
student of Marcus. He told the Yale Daily
News: I think she will always be a model
of the philosophical life. She showed how
one can be a serious philosopher with very
high standards and a compassionate
How The Light Gets In
Over the first ten days of June, a large
festival will take place in the small town of
Hay-on-Wye at the foot of the Black
Mountains, on the border between Wales
and England. How the Light Gets In
promises to be an unusual combination of
live music events and philosophical
debate. It will include a large number of
philosophy talks and panel discussions
involving such folk as Luce Irigaray, Mary
Midgley, James Lovelock, Nigel Lawson,
Brian Eno, and Julian Savulescu. Kevin
Warwick will be talking about cyborgs,
and Stephen Cave will be talking about
ways to live forever. Philosophy Nows Anja
Steinbauer will be giving a talk on sentimentality, our columnist Professor
Raymond Tallis will be talking about all
sorts of things and there will be a Philosophy Now dinner on the final weekend. For
all events advance booking is best, so see

Alan Turing Birthday Party

On 15th-16th June a 100th birthday
party will be held for Alan Turing (19121954), who will be unable to attend for
obvious reasons. Turings birthday is well
worth celebrating, as his many achievements in cryptography and computer
science shaped the modern world. He
introduced the revolutionary idea that
computing machines could be controlled
by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computers memory.
During WW2 he played a crucial role
within the British team at Bletchley Park
which cracked the coded messages
produced by the Enigma Machine, an
achievement often credited with shortening the war. A few years later, a grateful
nation prosecuted him for homosexuality
(which was then illegal) and the pressure is
presumed to have driven him to suicide in
1954. His other contributions include the
Turing Test for machine intelligence.
The birthday party will be held at
Kings College, Cambridge, where Turing
was a student and later a fellow. Speakers
will include a team of experts on Turing,
leading scientists and science broadcasters
including Simon Singh and Stephen
Wolfram, and well-known philosophers
Margaret Boden and Dan Dennett.
Members of Turings family and others
who knew him personally will be there to
share their memories of him. There will be
lectures on Turings contributions to:
wartime codebreaking, artificial intelligence, artificial life, the development of
our technological society, the theory and
practice of computing and the understanding of the human mind.
Be Anxious... Be Very Anxious
Research into behavioural patterns has
thrown interesting light on how worrying
correlates with intelligence. A study
reported in the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience reveals that the worst
sufferers of a common anxiety disorder had
a higher IQ than those whose symptoms
were less severe. The researchers speculate


that worrying is good for the brain and

probably vital for survival; evolving in
humans along with intelligence to make
them more adept at avoiding danger.
Alternatively, of course, it could just be
that more imaginative people can think of
more things to worry about.
Facts? Forget Em!
In April, inner-London teacher John
Overton warned the conference of the
Association of Teachers and Lecturers that
a return to traditional teaching methods,
with the emphasis on learning dates, facts
and figures (as recently proposed by the
British government) could be counterproductive. He proposed that schools
should instead concentrate on teaching
skills such as independent research, interpreting evidence and critical thinking. He
suggested that smartphones provide a
substantial knowledge bank which make it
unnecessary to commit as many facts to
memory as in the past. The idea that
smartphones could complement or replace
the memory in our heads resonates well
with current theories of extended
consciousness proposed by philosophers
and neurologists such as Antonio Damasio.
A Grateful World
Celebrates Justin Knapp Day
On 19th April it was announced that
since 2005, a million edits have been made
to philosophy, religion and politics articles
on Wikipedia ... by the same man. Justin
Knapp, a 30-year old graduate of the
University of Indiana with degrees in
philosophy and politics, has averaged an
astonishing 385 edits per day ever since he
joined the online encyclopedias 90,000
voluntary editors in that year. In recognition of his achievement in becoming the
first person ever to notch up a million
edits, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales
decreed that April 20th 2012 should be
celebrated as Justin Knapp Day. Knapps
source of income has been reported as
being pizza delivery, but he is said to have
become a folk-hero to fellow editors.
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 5

Plato: A Theory of Forms

David Macintosh explains Platos Theory of Forms or Ideas

or the non-philosopher, Platos Theory of Forms can

seem difficult to grasp. If we can place this theory into
its historical and cultural context perhaps it will begin to
make a little more sense.
Plato was born somewhere in 428-427 B.C., possibly in
Athens, at a time when Athenian democracy was already well
developed. He belonged to a wealthy and aristocratic family.
Platos family were involved in Athenian politics, so it is likely
that Plato was no stranger to politics himself. He was also the
founder of the Academy in Athens, which can be regarded as
the Western worlds first university, and its first school of philosophy. He died some time between 348-347 B.C.
Philosophically, Plato was influenced by a tradition of scepticism, including the scepticism of his teacher Socrates, who is
also the star of Platos dialogues. What was obvious to many of
the early Greek philosophers was that we live in a world which
is not an easy source of true, ie, eternal, unchanging knowledge.
The world is constantly undergoing change. The seasons reflect
change. Nothing is ever permanent: buildings crumble, people,
animals and trees live, and then die. Even the present is deceiving: our senses of sight, touch and taste can let us down from
time to time. What looks to be water on the desert horizon is in
fact a mirage. Or what I think of as sweet at one time may seem
sour the next. Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, claimed
that we can never step into the same river twice.

My Mommys Cookies
By Plato, aged 4
The general consensus is that Platos philosophy of Forms was
a natural by-product of his friendship with Socrates and his
upbringing in an environment conducive to philosophical
thought. However, a newly recovered dialogue shows that
Platos first brush with Forms was in his moms kitchen:
Mommy, why do we have to cut each cookie into a crescent?
Because, Plato, all kourabiedes are crescent-shaped.
So that people will know theyre eating a kourabiede and not an
You tell me. What do all these cookies have in common?
They all have the same shape.
Why do they have the same shape, Plato?
Because they come from the same cutter?
Thats right.
So everybody knows they're all kourabiedes because they come
from the same cookie cutter?
Yes. Pass the cloves, please.
Because I said so! Now please stop eating the sugar, you know it
makes you hyperactive.

Courtney Gibbons was a student at the University of New Haven.

6 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

In his Socratic dialogues Plato argues through Socrates that

because the material world is changeable it is also unreliable.
But Plato also believed that this is not the whole story. Behind
this unreliable world of appearances is a world of permanence
and reliability. Plato calls this more real (because permanent)
world, the world of Forms or Ideas (eidos/idea in Greek). But
what is a Platonic Form or Idea?
Take for example a perfect triangle, as it might be described
by a mathematician. This would be a description of the Form or
Idea of (a) Triangle. Plato says such Forms exist in an abstract
state but independent of minds in their own realm. Considering
this Idea of a perfect triangle, we might also be tempted to take
pencil and paper and draw it. Our attempts will of course fall
short. Plato would say that peoples attempts to recreate the
Form will end up being a pale facsimile of the perfect Idea, just
as everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its
perfect Form. The Idea or Form of a triangle and the drawing
we come up with is a way of comparing the perfect and imperfect. How good our drawing is will depend on our ability to
recognise the Form of Triangle. Although no one has ever seen a
perfect triangle, for Plato this is not a problem. If we can conceive the Idea or Form of a perfect triangle in our mind, then the
Idea of Triangle must exist.
The Forms are not limited to geometry. According to Plato,
for any conceivable thing or property there is a corresponding
Form, a perfect example of that thing or property. The list is
almost inexhaustible. Tree, House, Mountain, Man, Woman,
Ship, Cloud, Horse, Dog, Table and Chair, would all be examples of putatively independently-existing abstract perfect Ideas.
Plato says that true and reliable knowledge rests only with
those who can comprehend the true reality behind the world of
everyday experience. In order to perceive the world of the
Forms, individuals must undergo a difficult education. This is
also true of Platos philosopher-kings, who are required to perceive the Form of Good(ness) in order to be well-informed
rulers. We must be taught to recall this knowledge of the Forms,
since it is already present in a persons mind, due to their soul
apparently having been in the world of the Forms before they
were born. Someone wanting to do architecture, for example,
would be required to recall knowledge of the Forms of Building,
House, Brick, Tension, etc. The fact that this person may have
absolutely no idea about building design is irrelevant. On this
basis, if you cant recall the necessary knowledge then youre
obviously not suited to be an architect, or a king. Not everyone
is suited to be king in the same way as not everyone is suited to
mathematics. Conversely, a very high standard in a particular
trade suggests knowledge of its Forms. The majority of people
cannot be educated about the nature of the Forms because the
Forms cannot be discovered through education, only recalled.
To explain our relationship to the world of the Forms, in the
Republic Plato uses the analogy of people who spend their
whole lives living in a cave [see box on page 9]. All they ever
see are shadows on the walls created by their campfire. Compared with the reality of the world of the Forms, real physical


objects and events are analogous to being only shadows. Plato

also takes the opportunity to use the cave analogy as a political
statement. Only the people who have the ability to step out
into the sunlight and see (recall) the true reality (the Forms)
should rule. Clearly Plato was not a fan of Greek democracy.
No doubt his aristocratic background and the whims of
Athenian politics contributed to his view, especially as the
people voted to execute his mentor Socrates.
Plato leaves no doubt that only special people are fit to rule.

Who are the special people who can recognise the Forms? For
Plato the answer is straightforward: the ideal ruler is a philosopher-king, because only philosophers have the ability to discern the Forms. Plato goes on to say that it is only when such a
person comes to power that the citizens of the state will have
the opportunity to step out of the cave and see the light.

David Macintosh is a professional educator in New South Wales, and

a regular participant in academic and non-academic philosophy forums.
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 7

Picking A Fight With Plato

Ed Fraser argues that the theory of recollection presented by Socrates
in the Meno is circular.

he primary objective of Platos Meno is an inquiry into

the nature of virtue. Accordingly, Socrates, acting as
usual as Platos mouthpiece, and Meno, a student of
the sophists, attempt to answer the question What is virtue?
Their initial failure to understand what virtue is prompts
Meno to ask whether they should even suppose that an answer
is possible. The problem is, how do you find something, such
as virtue, when you dont know what it is youre looking for? If
you already know what it is, then you dont need to find it; but
if you dont know what it is, how will you know when you have
found it? This problem of finding a definition of something is
known as the paradox of enquiry.
Socrates argues that in order for a person to enquire into
something it must be knowable. Menos criticism is in effect
that in order for a person to enquire into something it must
also be known. He argues that if the object in question is not
known in other words, if the person doesnt know what
theyre looking for then they cannot begin their enquiry at
all; for how can one enquire into the nature of x without
knowing what x is? Meno is also concerned with the possibility that enquiry is never-ending, since even if one were to
stumble across the right account, one might not know that it
was the right account, (Meno 80D). Socrates focuses primarily
on the first part of Menos dilemma: how enquiry might be
started. The difficulty can be rephrased as being that enquiry
into what is known is unnecessary, and enquiry into what is
unknown is impossible.
Socrates refers to the problem as a tired dispute, and suggests that it might be solved upon a proper examination into
the nature of knowledge and enquiry. Specifically, he proposes
that everything a person knows or can come to know was previously known by them. Although it has subsequently been forgotten, it may be relearned. This is the Platonic/Socratic
theory of recollection. In this sense Socrates accepts that a person
cannot enquire into what they genuinely do not know, but he
avoids the paradox of enquiry by maintaining that they can

enquire into what they have forgotten. Since this will include all
knowledge, enquiry is secured in very general terms.
In defence of his position, Socrates refers to what he describes
as a glorious truth namely, that the soul of man is immortal.
It might die and be reborn, but it is never destroyed. He reasons
that, since the soul is immortal and has been born again many
times, it must have seen all things that exist in this world or in
the world below or in the world of the Forms and has knowledge
of them all. In this way, the soul has learned everything that
there is to know (i.e., everything that can be enquired into).
Although everything the soul has learnt has been forgotten,
during the process of enquiry someone might come to recollect
something that they had previously known, thereby relearning
some piece of knowledge say of the nature of virtue.
Socrates provides a demonstration. An uneducated slave boy
of Menos is shown to be capable of recognising the right
answer to a mathematical problem that he has never (in this
life) heard before (Meno 81a-86b). Socrates is keen to stress
that the boy arrives at the right answer by himself through a
series of questions. Since the boy was not taught the right
answer, Socrates proposes that he expressed an opinion that
was already in him. He argues on these grounds that the soul
already contains an array of true opinions, gathered, as it were,
from a previous life, which can be newly aroused though
simple questioning. In this respect, one can enquire into what
one is ignorant of in virtue of the fact that the true opinions are
stirred up into your mind through questioning.
Circular Knowledge
I do not intend to argue that Socrates theory of recollection
does not work as a solution to the paradox of enquiry. Instead I
intend to demonstrate that the theory of recollection doesnt
work generally. To do this I shall make three claims:
1.) That in order for his theory of recollection to be coherent
and therefore potentially resolve Menos paradox of enquiry,
Socrates must be able to demonstrate that the slave boy is in
fact recollecting some previous true opinions rather than learning new knowledge by using general reasoning.
2.) That Socrates attempts to establish recollection by employing the notion of what I shall describe as an immortal and
knowledge-giving soul.
3.) That the reasoning he uses to promote his immortal and
knowledge-giving soul is circular.
The first of my claims is obviously a requirement for
Socrates. His theory turns on whether or not the slave boy learns
anything new. In particular, Socrates needs to show that the true
opinions arrived at were already-learned forgotten truths.
The second claim seems equally uncontroversial. Socrates is
able to take the slave boy to have arrived at true relearned opinions because he has already introduced the notion of an immor-

8 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

tal and knowledge-giving soul. Given this notion, if a person

comes to the correct answer to a problem of which they have no
experience (in this life), it can be reasonable to suppose that its
because they have relearned something they already knew.
Now for the tricky part. I think Socrates does not assume
the existence of an immortal and knowledge-giving soul.
Rather, I believe that he sets it out as a possibility to be examined, and attempts to persuade us that this is the case. I put it
to you that the slave boy example is intended to demonstrate
that such a soul exists. In other words, Socrates draws the
grounds for his notion of an immortal and knowledge-giving
soul out of the slave boy example, because he believes that it is
the best explanation for the apparently relearned true opinions
he observes in the boy. But it strikes me that Socrates is not
entitled to use what he sees as the relearned true opinions of
the slave boy to prove the existence of an immortal knowledge-providing soul, because the true opinions themselves
cannot be established as relearned until they are proven to
have originated from such a soul. The point is that if the
relearned opinions noticed in the slave boy are supposed to
offer evidence for an immortal knowledge-providing soul, then
Socrates reasoning is circular here, because the existence of
such a soul is offered to account for the origin of the opinions.
To put it another way, having initially proposed that the true
opinions of the slave boy originated out of the otherworld
experiences of the immortal knowledge-providing soul,
Socrates is not then in the position to say that they offer evidence for the existence of that soul. Thus Socrates draws his
evidence for the existence of an immortal knowledge-provid-

ing soul on circular grounds.

We may draw an analogy with a challenge made against
Descartes. In his Meditations Six, Descartes proposes that everything that we clearly and distinctly perceive is true with certainty
because it is guaranteed by the existence of God. But in Meditations Four, he has already proposed that we know that God exists
because we clearly and distinctly perceive that he exists, and
whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive is true with certainty.
The reasoning here is circular one cannot at the same time
infer the existence of God because one clearly and distinctly perceives it, and infer the truth of what one clearly and distinctly
perceives from the existence of God. This is sometimes referred
to as the Cartesian Circle.
I am suggesting that Socrates here commits what we might
call the Socratic Circle. At the same time that he seems to say
that he can establish that the slave boys true opinions are
relearned on the basis that he has an immortal knowledge-providing soul, he also seems to say that we know the slave boy has a
knowledge-providing soul on the basis that he has relearned true
opinions. This reasoning is circular in a similar way to Descartes.
This has severe consequences, because unless Socrates can prove
that the slave boy comes by the right answer in virtue of already
knowing it in a past life, then the problem of enquiry is not
solved by the theory of recollection, and the Platonic theory of
knowledge cannot get off the ground.

Edward Fraser graduated in 2010 with a degree in philosophy from

Kings College London. Hes the creator and co-host of philosophical
podcast The Thirst (

Platos Allegory of the Cave, as told in the Republic, Book VII, is a fable related by Socrates to illustrate the gap Plato perceives
between the transient world as it appears to us, and the unchanging world of the Forms, which exists behind or beyond appearances.
In an extended metaphor, Plato/Socrates considers dwellers in a cave. All their lives theyve been chained up so that they cannot
move their heads to look around. The entrance to the cave the exit to the daylight of truth is behind them, and so is a fire, with a
walkway in front of it. People walk along this path, or things are paraded on it, and the shadows of these people and things are cast
by the fire onto the wall in front of the prisoners. Because they have no experience which might suggest a different interpretation, the
cave-dwellers assume that the shadows they see moving on the cave wall are the reality of the people and things. This idea seems to
be confirmed by the whispers of voices or other noises they hear echoing around the cave in time with the movements or gestures
of the shadows. In an analogous way (the argument goes), we assume that the world we experience is absolute reality, never imagining that there might be a hidden reality which is the source of our flickering experiences, but which is quite different from them.
Socrates goes on to relate how one day one of the dwellers in darkness is dragged up out of the cave to the light of truth. Plato clearly is
referring to himself here, as going beyond appearances to perceive the world of the Forms the highest of which, the dazzling sun of the
Forms, is the Form of (the) Good. He has Socrates say of this Form Once [the Good] is perceived, the conclusion must follow that, for all
things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good: in
real things/people
the visible world it gives birth to light and to the lord of
light, while it is itself sovereign in the intelligible world [of
Forms], and the parent of intelligence and truth. Without
having had a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of the state.
Plato tells us that the freed man, having seen the truth,
will return to tell his former companions what he has
experienced. Plato also thinks they wont believe him, will
abuse him for his foolishness, and will kill him if he tries to
free others. Nevertheless, for Plato it is the duty of the
enlightened to try and convince the endarkened of the
deception they suffer under; and he goes on to explain
why the philosopher, who has knowledge of the Good,
should rule over those who do not have such knowledge.

May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 9

Platos Just State

Chris Wright ponders Platos masterplan.

ne of the purposes of Platos Republic is to put forth a

conception of the just state. Plato describes how
such a state would be organized, who would govern it,
what sort of education the children would have, and so on. He
goes into great detail, laying out ideas that may at times strike
the modern reader as wrongheaded, petty, or even immoral.
Sir Karl Popper argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies that
Platos ideal state is totalitarian, with little freedom of expression allowed, little diversity, and a perverse commitment to a
Spartan-like regimentation of social life. Others see evidence
of democracy in Platos description, for instance in the egalitarianism that characterizes certain aspects of his educational
program. I want to ask to what extent Platos vision is still relevant whether it has anything valuable to say to us. And is the
Platonic state just or unjust? Is it entirely impracticable, or are
there elements that can and should be put into practice? How
adequate is the theory of justice on which it is founded? After
discussing these questions I will briefly consider the form a
modern version of this utopia might take.
Platos Definition of Justice
To do ones own business and not to
be a busybody is justice. (Republic
433b.) Although the modern reader
may find it odd, this is the definition
of justice Plato offers. The idea is
that justice consists in fulfilling ones
proper role realizing ones potential whilst not overstepping it by
doing what is contrary to ones
nature. This applies both to the
just state and to the just individual. In the just state, each class
and each individual has a specific set of duties, a set of obligations to the community which, if
everyone fulfils them, will result
in a harmonious whole. When a
person does what he is supposed to do, he receives whatever credit and remuneration
he deserves, and if he fails to
do his task, he is
appropriately punished.
Thus justice

10 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

is the having and doing of ones own and what belongs to oneself (434a). Excess and deficiency of any kind are unjust. In
this formulation the Platonic definition of justice seems plausible. A thief, for example, is unjust because he wants to have
what is not his own. A doctor who does not care about curing
his patients of illnesses can be called unjust because he is disregarding his proper role. A murderer acts unjustly since he
deprives his victim of that which rightly belongs to him, namely
his life. In general, unjust people either do not realize the
virtues and duties proper to their situation in life, or treat someone worse than he deserves. Similarly, an unjust state fails to
accomplish the functions of a state. According to Plato, these
functions of the state include making possible the conditions
under which everyone can feed, clothe and shelter themselves,
as well as seek the Good.
Platos conception of justice is informed by his conviction
that everything in nature is part of a hierarchy, and that nature
is ideally a vast harmony, a cosmic symphony, every species and
every individual serving a purpose. In this vision, anarchy is the
supreme vice, the most unnatural and unjust state of affairs.
The just state, then, like nature, is hierarchical: individuals are
ranked according to their aptitudes, and definitively placed in
the social hierarchy.
The individual soul, too, is hierarchical: the appetitive part is
inferior to the spirited part, which is inferior to the rational. Yet
each has a necessary role to play. Reason should govern the individual, but the appetites must also to an extent be heeded if the
persons soul is to be harmonious
and not in conflict with itself.
And if every aspect of the soul
accomplishes its task well, or
fittingly, the result is necessarily a moderate and
ordered state of affairs. The
virtuous individual has a wellordered soul, which is to say that
he knows what justice is and
acts according to his knowledge. He knows his place
in the state; he knows
what his aptitudes are
and he puts them into
practice. He also
adheres to the dictates of reason, doing
everything in moderation.
The Platonic
worldview is
quite foreign to
the modern liberal democratic
world. We are
accustomed to

a dynamic, free, at times chaotic society, which knows almost

nothing of rigid hierarchies. People are not ranked according to
their intrinsic value or their value to society, and any philosophy that reeks of a caste system is decisively rejected. We are
not committed to analogies between nature and society; and we
do not think of the world as a harmony, even ideally. We like
order, but we do not consider it supreme among values. We
admire ambitious, driven people, rather than those who are at
peace with themselves or do everything in moderation. In general, our culture places little emphasis on a specific ideal, choosing instead to censure types of behavior which interfere with
other peoples pursuit of happiness. Plato, however, would consider our ideal state unjust, decadent, anarchical.
Plato lived in an Athens that to his chagrin was in danger of
losing its cultural and military preeminence, and was succumbing to disintegrating influences from abroad and from within.
He had lived through the terrible time of the Peloponnesian
War with Sparta, and the Thirty Tyrants, and therefore had
intimate experience of the horrors of anarchy. In short, he saw
an older, supposedly better, world crumbling around him, and
he wanted to understand what had gone wrong and how it
could be fixed. The result was that he emphasized order and
homogeneity, and upheld the claims of the state over the
claims of the individual, while thinking that in a just state full
of just individuals, the laws of the former would harmonize
with the desires of the latter. For Plato, justice was to be
sought in the old, in the static the assimilation of the individual into the community not in the new or the dynamic.
While Plato did value freedom, he did so much less than we
moderns do, as is evidenced in his not emphasizing it in
his discussions of justice.
Thus, despite whatever superficial similarities there may be between Platos idea of justice
and our own, they are fundamentally different, since his worldview is diametrically opposed to ours. In a particular case, such
as that of a murder, Plato might judge as we do (largely
because we seem to have intuitive ideas of how humans ought
to be treated). However, both his explicit definitions of justice
and the deeper intuitions that inspire his definitions differ
from ours. We conceive of justice as oriented around ideas of
individual freedom and the priority of the individual over the
community, and we consider it sometimes not only permissible
but even meritorious to disobey the states laws if they violate
certain intuitions about individual rights. Platos concept of
justice is instead inspired by his conviction that the collective
takes ethical precedence over the individual, that there is a
cosmic order into which each person is supposed to fit, and
that virtue, and to an extent duty, is far more important than
The differences become apparent when we look at larger
scales than individuals transgressions. Many would agree with
Plato that theft is unjust or that the professional who ignores
his duties can be called unjust, and also that tyranny is unjust.
But in this last case our respective judgments are based on different reasons. We would say that the tyrants injustice consists
in his suppressing freedom, killing innocent people, and disregarding democracy and self-determination. Plato, on the other
hand, would say that the tyrant is unjust insofar as his acts pro-

mote anarchy and prevent his subjects from seeking the Good
and living in harmony with themselves and the community.
The tyrant upsets the natural order of things.
Another illustration of the difference in our outlooks is in
our conceptions of the ideal or just person. According to Plato,
the ideal person is a philosopher, since his wisdom means his
soul is in complete harmony with itself. The philosophers
rational faculty governs his passions and appetites, never allowing them free rein, but still respecting their claims on him and
indulging them when expedient. He has knowledge of himself
and society; he knows what it is to be virtuous; he has a certain
amount of equanimity, and he never loses control over himself.
By contrast, Platos unjust person is divided against himself,
torn between his passions and appetites, and has no respect for
reason, which alone could unify his soul such that he would be
an individual in the literal sense of the word in-dividual.
Our notion of the ideal person is far less specific than
Platos. Like Platos, it does, to an extent, incorporate the
notion of virtue; but for us virtue is conceived as treating
others well rather than as functioning healthily within a community. Our ideal can be called more
relational, in that it emphasizes how
others should be treated rather than
emphasizing the character of ones
Given these differences, one
obvious ques-

tion is
which concept
of justice (or
more fundamentally, which worldview) is
better, Platos or ours? I have
elaborated on neither, merely
sketching them. Still, let me
suggest an answer: neither
Platos nor our own is totally satisfactory, but each has its
strengths. The most defensible notion of justice,
socially or individually, would be a combination of the
two, selecting the strengths from each and reconciling
them. It would emphasize both the importance of community
and the importance of the individual, while succumbing neither
to the potential totalitarianism of the Republic, nor to the excessive individualism of modern culture. In the following Ill briefly
describe Platos utopia, then consider if it would be desirable to
put it into practice.
Platos Ideal State
Every reader of the Republic is told that Platos intention in
discussing the just state is to illuminate the nature of the just
soul, for he argues that they are analogous. The state is the
soul writ large, so to speak. For example, the divisions of the
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 11

state correspond to divisions of the soul. But since the soul is

difficult to analyze, in the dialogue Socrates says that he will
first speculate on the state, and then rely on his speculations to
illuminate the nature of justice in the individual.
Superficially, it appears that the lengthy discussion of the
state is therefore primarily an interpretative device. Clearly,
though, it is more than that. Plato may not have believed that
his utopia would work in practice, or even that it would be
desirable to institute some of his more radical suggestions, but
he certainly attributed some value to his discussion independent of its illustrative function. Judging by Socrates language,
its reasonable to suppose that Plato would have liked to have
seen some of his ideas actually implemented in a city-state. He
was dissatisfied with the city-states of his day, and was proposing an alternative. So lets look at its details.
In Platos ideal state there are three major classes, corresponding to the three parts of the soul. The guardians, who are
philosophers, govern the city; the auxiliaries are soldiers who
defend it; and the lowest class comprises the producers (farmers,
artisans, etc). The guardians and auxiliaries have the same education, which begins with music and literature and ends with
gymnastics. The arts are censored for educational purposes:
for example, any poetic writings which attribute ignoble
doings to the gods cannot be taught. Only poetry which nourishes the budding virtues of the pupils can be part of the curriculum. Similarly, musical modes which sound sorrowful, soft,
or feminine, are banished from the education of the guardians.
This apparently leaves only the Dorian and Phrygian modes,
of which . Socrates approves because they incite the listener to
courage, temperance, and harmonious living. Certain instruments, such as the flute, are also forbidden from the ideal citystate, as are certain poetic meters, since Socrates associates
them with vice.
Indeed, then, life in Platos ideal state has affinities with life
under a totalitarian government. The laws which Socrates suggests are repressive. People are allowed to have only one occupation namely that for which they are best suited by nature.
Evidently there is no division between the public and the private. Only what is conducive to temperate living is encouraged, and excess and vice of any kind are strongly discouraged.
Neither wealth nor poverty is permitted, as each leads to vice.
Platos thoughts on women and children may be even more
horrifying to the average liberal. He argues via Socrates that
the traditional form of the family should be done away with.
Men should have women and children in common, such that
no man knows who his children are or has excessive love for
one woman in particular. Even mothers are not allowed to
know who their children are. Their children are taken from
them after birth, and they are given other children to suckle as
long as they have milk.
Platos breeding principles sound ominously like the Nazi
idea, and Spartan practice, of killing weak and deformed
infants. He says:
the best of either sex should be united with the best as often [as possible],
and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible; and they should
rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock
is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings-on must be a
12 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

secret which only the rulers know, or there will be a further danger of our
herd, as they may be termed, breaking out into rebellion.

More congenial to modern sentiment is Platos suggestion

that women in the guardian class should receive the same education as men, so that the best of them can assist in war and
governance. There is no private property or money except
insofar as it is necessary, among the lower classes; therefore
there will be no disputes about what belongs to whom just as
there will be no disputes about which women belong to whom,
and who ones children are. In general, the goal Plato is aiming
at is that everyone thinks of everyone else as a member of their
family, such that there is little or no strife between people and
they all desire the same thing which is harmony, temperance,
gentleness toward fellow-citizens and harshness toward people
from other states a unified front on all issues, as it were. The
health of the community is the overriding principle in all
spheres of life. All of Platos radical prescriptions follow from
that one principle.
Sedition & Subversion
What are we to make of these ideas? What should we take
from them? Do they represent a mere historical curiosity a
way of gaining insight into Platos mind or into his culture or
do they have independent philosophical and political merit?
My opinion is that their obvious totalitarianism makes it a
very good thing that Platos just state was never constructed.
This is where my fidelity to modern ideologies shows itself. I
think that Hegel was right in his assessment of liberalism: it
has so to speak discovered the importance of subjectivity, and
thus serves as a needed corrective to totalitarian excesses. The
individual is not ethically subordinate to the community; her
health, and especially her freedom, are no less important than
communal harmony. Indeed, unless a person feels free, he
cannot be psychologically healthy.
Plato underestimates the value of self-determination: its
foundational importance to self-respect and hence to justice,
even in his sense of the term. Platos guardians perhaps exhibit
the virtues and enjoy the satisfactions of self-determination; but
everyone else in Platos utopia is to be forced by the philosopher-king(s) to live their lives in a fundamentally unfree (non
self-determining) way. They will thus lack complete self-respect
and contentment: the mere knowledge that they are in an inferior position relative to others will breed discontent, which will
upset their psychological equilibrium, the harmony of their faculties and desires with each other, and with their place in the
world. In other words it will set each of them at war with himself and with the state. Accordingly, as Plato himself implies,
this will make for unjust individuals. By denying most of its citizens true freedom the opportunity to discover themselves and
their talents unhindered by oppressive laws promulgated by an
oppressive regime Platos utopia will make their dissatisfaction with themselves and the community inevitable, which is
bad not only in itself but also because it means people are
unjust, ie self-divided. Thus the Platonic utopia makes impossible the very virtues it was meant to promote.
The need for recognition is a basic psychological need.
People want to recognize themselves in their activities, in the

world, in other peoples reactions to them. But no one who is

conscious of oppressive restrictions on his behavior can think
that his deepest sense of himself is being recognized by the
community which censors him. Rather, he may be full of
resentment, tormented by repressed desires, and desperate to
break free of the shackles and spontaneously affirm himself to
actualize his full, rich sense of who he is and wants to be. No
one can feel good about himself unless his activities grow out of
his own ideals and self-perceptions. They must emerge organically from his spontaneous sense of himself. Genuine recognition is impossible except on the basis of freedom, so any social
order that does not allow freedom among its participants is
inherently unstable, having the potential for rebellion built into
it. Every major culture in history, then, has been erected on
somewhat tenuous and transient foundations; but Platos utopia
in particular would soon collapse.
Plato was right that the interests of the individual ultimately
coincide with the interests of the community, for a community
is only as healthy as the people who participate in it, and vice
versa. Where he went wrong was in failing to understand the
prerequisites of the self-harmony that he rightly thought constituted individual and communal happiness the prerequisites
being freedom, and the perception that ones sense of self is
appreciated by others. Modern liberal ideologies over-compensate for this deficiency in Plato. They have an impoverished view of what freedom is and why it is good, for they exalt
the concept of an isolated, ahistorical individual who needs
nothing but protection from other people rather than genuine
and durable ties with them. Protection is of secondary importance: the essence of freedom, the reason why it is desired in
the first place, is that it is inseparable from interpersonal union
from mutual recognition of each persons self-determined
activities as being his, as being him. In a truly free society there
would be no atomization, and no artificial legal barriers to
interpersonal understanding and recognition, to communal
self-realization. People live in and through the community. Far
from needing protection from it, they feel deprived without it.
Other Ideal States
Socrates remarks in the Republic that although his (Platos)
utopia may be unrealizable, it is useful as an ideal or a standard
by which we can criticize existing institutions. While I disagree
with Platos version of utopia, I agree that it is a worthy task to
formulate social ideals. In doing so, we at least posit an ideal
state we can strive to realize, even if in its final details this is
impossible. With that in mind, I suggest that something like
properly democratic communism is the ideal we should use to
critique the present, since it reconciles Platos emphasis on the
community with the modern emphasis on individual freedom.
Indeed, Marxs ideal of a communist utopia is not merely
Marxist; it is heir to both the Platonic and the liberal utopias.
This statement may seem paradoxical, if only because Platonism and liberalism are diametrically opposed, as we have seen.
But consider what is involved in Marxs ideal society. First of all,
classes would not exist. That is, Marx claims in the Communist
Manifesto (1848) that after a period of state socialism and redistribution of wealth, separate classes will no longer exist and the
state will no longer be needed.

Marxs classless utopia is not as blatantly incompatible with

Platonism as it might seem, since, for one thing, the Marxist
definition of class is very different from the Platonic. Plato
incorporates a fusion of political and economic criteria: the
lowest class is involved in productive economic activities but
has no political power, while the highest class has all the political power, but no economic activity. For Marx, on the other
hand, the definition of class is exclusively economic, based on
the groups role in the process of production. For Marx there
are basically two classes, namely the capitalists and the workers.
My points are, first, that rather than contradicting Plato,
Marx adopts a different starting-point. Second, while Marxist
ideology does contradict Platonism in its classless and popularist ideals, it does so on the basis of a deep sympathy with
Platos goals. Both are concerned with the health and wholeness of the community, the durability of its social structures,
the happiness of its citizens, and the justice of its political and
economic arrangements. To that extent, communism is a
descendant of Platos republicanism: it too is an ideology built
on the conviction that the community is an organic whole and
not merely an aggregate of individuals, and therefore that
social structures the relational ties between people take priority over the behavior of atomized individuals, both in a scientific analysis of society, and also in the formulation of an ethical ideal. Where Marxs ideal state differs from Platos is not in
its goal or inspiration, then, but in its means of realizing its
goal, or more accurately, in the structures it posits as constitutive of that goal viz, democracy, universal economic and
political cooperation, the absence of coercive social mechanisms, and so forth. These political structures have more in
common with liberalism than Platonism, as they place great
emphasis on the freedom of the individual.
Marx does reject liberal talk of rights and the rule of law, but
he does so precisely because he understands that such talk is
symptomatic of the incomplete realization of the liberal goal of
self-determination. To achieve his purer vision of liberalism,
Marx thinks that capitalism, together with its ideologies exalting
private property with its corresponding laws, rights, and so on,
must be transcended, as it suppresses and dehumanizes people.
Despite the differences between Platos conception of justice and our own, elements of his philosophy can be reconciled
with elements of our liberal democratic ideology. I also suggested that Platos communitarian intuition was largely right,
even if his means of realizing it were dangerously wrong. Also,
the ideal individual should indeed be self-unified and have selfcontrol, and Plato was right that, on the whole, such individuals will not arise except in socially harmonious conditions.
Marx retained some of Platos intuitions while discarding
the totalitarian doctrines which would make the achievement
of Platos perfect community impossible. I think we should do
as Marx did, at least in theory (even if in practice his followers
deviated far from his ideals), and adopt the liberal features of
Platos notion of social justice while casting off its totalitarian
undertones. If we did so, I suspect life would become a little
better than it is now, in our confused and atomized world.

Chris Wright studied postgraduate philosophy at the University of

Missouri - St Louis.
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 13

Addicts, Mythmakers
and Philosophers
Alan Brody explains Platos/Socrates understanding of habitually bad behavior

had held up his right hand and asked See this? He

showed me gnarled and maimed fingers. Thad told me
that while he was flying his plane into Turkey, the
Turkish air force forced him to land, having gotten wind that he
was running drugs. They jailed him, and in an attempt to extract
a confession, his jailers broke his fingers. He didnt confess.
Thad bribed his way out of jail. Eventually he came to the
drug treatment center where I was working, to get help with
his drinking problem. (Thad and other patient names are pseudonyms.) After discussing addiction as involving compulsive
behavior, we concluded that Thad was suffering from alcoholism. Knowing he would be better off not drinking, Thad
committed himself to abstinence. He told me that he didnt
need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous for support, explaining
that if he could resist caving in from torture he could certainly
resist whatever discomfort he would experience from not
drinking. Thad thought that being able to follow through with
his resolve was simply a matter of having the ability to resist
succumbing to how bad it would feel to not drink.
When Thad came in for his next appointment he looked
pained, shocked and confused. He told me that in spite of his
decision to remain abstinent, he drank. It happened at the airport while he was waiting for his friend to arrive. Thad couldnt
understand how he would do such a thing, given his ability to
handle pain when sticking to a resolution. I explained how a
compulsive condition such as alcoholism can change how one

On a ship, tied to the mast:

Ulysses and the Sirens by
John William Waterhouse

14 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

evaluates what to do, so that someone who previously decided

not to drink can come to temporarily think its okay to do so.
After I explained how this kind of change of thought could produce a motive for drinking, Thad saw how his ability to endure
suffering couldnt be counted on to guarantee abstinence.
Addicts as Willing Participants
Addiction busts up what matters: the condition is capable of
creating urges and motivations which bring about highly significant losses to a persons well-being in spite of the persons
standing preference not to live like that. Its possible that an
addict is able, at times, to control the urge to use; but the
addict also might not be able to prevent an urge to use from
spontaneously arising and motivating. Other conditions, for
instance bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders, can also
create self-regulatory failures, so that episodes of self-destructive behavior are willingly engaged in which contravene the
persons general preference not to behave like that. Furthermore an appearance, at times, of control intentionally cutting
down, or temporarily stopping can mislead the addict and
others into believing that the addiction really is under control.
The ability of the addict to believe that he/she is addicted also
typically becomes compromised.
Well, why not just hold that addicts abandon their resolve to
be abstinent simply because they change their minds, and not
through some sort of compulsion? Its common to change ones

mind when faced with temptation.

Sometimes the choice to go ahead with
its my
great leaving
the temptation is the result of a cost27,572,315th!
benefit evaluation in other words, it
seems worthwhile to do it. At other
times a person might gratify their desire
or urge without entertaining any
qualms or even thoughts about it. So
although an addicts habitual behavior
might be atypical, rather than seeing it
as a result of a compulsion theyre not
strong enough to fight against, why not
see their addictive behavior as something done in a willing manner, because
the person feels like doing it, and/or
they regard it as worth doing?
This willingness model (my terminology) has its roots in the analysis of
embracing temptation which is found in
Platos dialogue Protagoras. Contemporary philosophers such as Herbert FinEternal recurrence?
garette in Heavy Drinking: The Myth Of
See The Devils Gambit on p.16
Alcoholism As A Disease, and recently,
Piers Benn in Can Addicts Help It? in Philosophy Now issue 80,
they ignore the order (probably because they cant hear it). In
have also argued in support of such a model. I believe that
the Socratic/Platonic analysis of what we think of as yielding to
understanding addiction requires appreciating elements of that
temptation, temptation plays the same role as enchantment in
model, as well as conceiving of addiction as a disorder involving
the story, in the sense that temptation has a power to deceive
a compulsive process which undermines the ability to regulate
someone into willingly choosing it as best thing to do.
ones behavior.
Aristotle thought that by asserting that when we gratify our
desires for what tempts we are still doing what we think best,
Model Behavior
Socrates was denying the existence of akrasia weakness of
In the Protagoras, Socrates discusses the nature of, and chalwill, or a failure of self-restraint. The denial of both compullenges to, self-mastery (ie self-control). When faced with a
sivity and of weakness of will in explaining addiction has
choice, Socrates tells us, human nature means we want to do
resulted in a willingness model commonly referred to as the
what we think is best. So, he argues, if we believe we know
moral model of addiction. On this view, what the addict does
what the good (the best) thing to do is, and it is accessible to
can be explained in terms of Socrates willingness model and
us, we will do the good. However, says Socrates, things which
an addicts immoral character: ie, they want to do it, and care
tempt us can have the power to alter our perception or undermore about satisfying their addiction than the consequences of
standing of their value, making them deceptively appear to be
doing so. The addicts moral deficits reside in their motivawhat is best. Consequently, we choose the temptation as the
tions, as illustrated in the accusation: If you cared more about
best thing to do. The experience of going along with temptapeoples safety than drinking, you wouldnt drink and drive.
tion is not, Socrates argues, one in which the person protests
Here, the individual is judged to be morally deficient for not
or fights against its unreasonableness while being dragged
prioritizing peoples safety over their own desire to drink.
along into gratifying it. For Socrates, yielding to temptation
Support for the moral and other willingness models has been
is not being unwillingly overpowered, but is the experience of
garnered from the fact that some addicts have stopped or limited
being a willing participant choosing what is at that moment
their drug use when they have had good enough reason for
wrongly thought to be best. This is also the essence of the willdoing so that is, when they regard doing so as important. For
ingness model of addictive behavior.
example, it is not unusual for women to stop smoking while
A good way to understand it is by looking at how Homer
pregnant in order to protect the fetus, but to resume smoking
depicts Odysseuss mental state after hearing the Sirens. In
afterwards. Also, addicts will often limit when they engage in
Homers Odyssey, the Sirens singing was said to be so beautiful
their addiction, for instance, not at work, or not around certain
that it would enchant sailors, who would then pilot their ships
people. Addicts might also demonstrate an ability to limit their
towards the deadly rocks from which the Sirens sang. Odysseus
drug use, e.g., their drinking, just to prove that they can successorders his men to tie him to the ships mast so that he can listen
fully control their habit. Some addicts may decide that their
to their song while his men row past them with wax blocking
addiction no longer works for them, and stop using completely.
their ears. Through the Sirens enchantment, Odysseus
Furthermore, it is often claimed, that even if there are genetic or
becomes hooked and orders his men to sail toward them, in
biological factors causing an addict to have strong urges, control
spite of having been told of the doom it will bring. Luckily,
over them still depend on what the addict thinks it is worthwhile



May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 15

Socrates on Self-Mastery
Although Socrates holds that when we know the good we
will choose to do it, he attributes to temptation a power to distort what we think is good. He then informs us of a way to
defeat this Sirens call: knowledge can provide a means of circumventing temptations distorting influence. This special
knowledge is a kind of know-how in discerning what is good,
like an artistic skill, or practical expertise. Socrates describes
this skill/knowledge somewhat vaguely, as being some kind of
measuring ability (Protagoras, 357b). Such knowledge allows its
possessor to avoid being deceived about what is really best, and
so to succeed in pursuing the true good. In this way, Socrates
maintains, knowing how to discern the good leads to doing the
good, despite temptations deceptions. It means having the
right kind of ability to both choose and do what is best, and this is
what having self-mastery means. In Xenophons Symposion
(2.10), a romantic strategy is reported by Xenophon which
emphasizes Socrates point about developing skills to improve
self-mastery. Here Socrates tells us that for his wife he has
chosen Xanthippe, a woman with spirit, so that he can develop
the ease he wants to have in conversing with everyone!
By linking the experience of willingly choosing what
appears best with a description of how that choice can be the
outcome of a process deceiving us about what is best, the
Socratic analysis of temptation goes beyond a simple willingness model of choice. In my interpretation, on the Socratic
model, one fails to choose to do the good one previously preferred because one doesnt have the ability (the know-how) to
see it as the better alternative (perhaps only momentarily). To
do what is best one must therefore develop this ability/knowhow. This model thus allows that someone might not have the
16 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

The Devils Gambit

It might be thought that when an addict expresses a commitment to stop an addiction, but doesnt, theyre expressing
either an unresolved ambivalence or a resolution to stop at
some later time (as seen in Augustines prayer, God grant me
chastity and continence but not yet). If so, continued drug
use (for example) might not be due to an inadequacy over selfregulation, but a result of choice. To appreciate how choices
enacted willingly can mask an impaired control of compulsive
processes, consider the following story.
One day in Hell the Devil approached a man who loved the
drinking parties there. The Devil told the man that as long as
he was willing to quit drinking he could immediately go to
Heaven, where he would forever have a better time. The man
replied that although Hell wasnt so bad, and the parties were
great, he preferred Heaven, and was willing to go there right
now. The Devil told him that if he wanted he could have a
great send-off party now, and go to Heaven tomorrow. The


Simplicity Itself
The willingness model of addiction has been presented as a
simple way to capture the nature of addiction, how it motivates, and how it manifests experientially and behaviorally. But
is its simplicity a good reason to believe it?
In From A Logical Point Of View (1953), the philosopher
W.V.O. Quine beautifully articulates the rationale involved
when he states that we adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged
(p.16). The simplicity of the willingness model, then, might
appear to give it a big advantage over any analysis of addiction
in terms of a compulsive condition or other disability (for
example, as an illness or disease). But we are in danger of being
seduced by a love of theoretical sparseness, misleading us into
violating another important methodological maxim, attributed
to Einstein, namely, that a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. To avoid us being misled by over-simplification, then, I will show why we have good reason to make our
explanation more complex, by viewing addiction as a condition
arising from a compulsion which undermines the ability to
self-regulate. To begin this explanation, lets look more deeply
into the Socratic understanding of self-mastery or self-control.

ability to avoid being deceived about what is the best choice.

For example, when Thad was at the airport, he became willing
to drink because for some reason he thought it was the best
option, in spite of his resolve to remain abstinent. His failure
of ability/knowledge was manifested by his becoming willing
to drink, and doing so. His preference was therefore ineffective
in preventing the relapse.


to do, even when the urges are intense. Urges incline but do
not necessitate, to use an expression of Leibnizs.

man thought it seemed a good idea to have the best of both

worlds, so he accepted the deal. The next day the man was
reminiscing about how great the send-off party was when the
Devil approached him and said he could have another terrific
party right then, and go to Heaven the next day. Of course the
man accepted. Each day the Devil made the same offer, and
each day the man accepted the party, replying, Ill quit drinking tomorrow. Well, the Devil knew that the man didnt have
what it takes to ever refuse a great party.
In order for our well-being not to be undermined, we need to
be able to be motivated by certain preferences. The protagonist
of our story would prefer to get out of Hell, but he also needs
the ability to be motivated by that preference and he doesnt
have what it takes to do that. His desire to drink trumps his
preference to do what he would prefer to be able to do, thereby
undermining the kind of self-regulation he would prefer to have.
The willingness model fails to capture the presence, nature, and
significance of these kinds of self-regulatory failures, but this
kind of dynamic is what addiction is built upon. For instance,
many smokers would prefer not to smoke. They believe that
smoking is bad for them, and often express their preference not
to smoke, perhaps just before lighting up. These addicts know
that they are failing to enact their preference, and they do not
intellectually sanction their akratic acts, even though they have
intentionally engaged in them. This is called clear-eyed akrasia.
We might exhibit akrasia by, for example, over-indulging on
occasion, but that doesnt mean were addicts. Addiction
involves other features, such as serious consequences which the
person, e.g. a smoker, prefers to avoid, but is unable to self-regulate well enough to avoid. As shown, this self-regulatory failure can work by disguising its presence behind a mask of
choices made willingly or despite intentionally resolving against
an addiction. Lets further expose the nature of the problem.
Addiction as a Disorder
Hal was a nurse who stole painkillers from patients to gratify his addiction. Hiding in hospital bathroom stalls, he would
fill two syringes, one with painkillers mixed with toilet water,
and the other with an antidote to stop him overdosing on the
painkillers. The syringe with the painkiller was taped on and
into one arm in such a manner that by flexing his arm the
plunger would close to inject more of its contents. Hal created
the same kind of arrangement with the antidote syringe taped
on and inserted into the other arm. Having twisted his body
around to position that forearm near the bathroom floor, if he
collapsed due to an overdose, he would fall on that arm,
thereby pushing the plunger in to inject the antidote.
Hal hated stealing his patients medication, using toilet
water in a fix, and living in a panic about being caught. He
didnt want to continue with the nightmarish lifestyle he was
engaged in. Yet although he had been treated at multiple
rehabs, Hal couldnt stop. Eventually he again sought help to
get drug-free and begin a new life.
Addiction is not just a condition made up of a bunch of
weak-willed acts. Addiction undermines the persons self-regulation, true. But it also undermines their ability to accurately
assess their problems seriousness as it repetitively generates a
willingness or motivation for acting in violation of their most

important preferences, even knowingly. Moreover, those who

follow addictions callings do not simply act from their own
sanctioned desires; they have become the enchanted followers
of yearnings arising from a metastasized love. The ability to
recover often has to develop as a result of experiencing addictions deep hardships. Addicts often talk about how it took a lot
of destructiveness, danger and craziness before they could
realize how insane they had become. To paraphrase one selfdiagnosed alcoholics breakthrough allowing him to finally
understand his problem: I knew I was an alcoholic after my
bike hit something and I went flying off, but had made sure
that my hands and arms protected my bottle rather than my
head. It is not just a simple question of misinformed choice.
Addicts and Non-Addicts Alike
Is compassion warranted for our self-regulatory failures?
Suppose you fail in a conscious attempt to do something
good. If so, you didnt have what you needed to succeed the
right urges, intentions, effort, plan, circumstances, or whatever
else. Someone might argue that you could have done better, by
for example forming the right intention: but they are being
misleading if they are thereby suggesting that you did have,
under those very circumstances, what sufficed for you to have
done better, since its impossible that your circumstances were
adequate to the task while also being inadequate. In other
words, to say that you could have done better overlooks the
way the world was: the world didnt have what sufficed to have
provided you the means to do better, otherwise it would have.
There is a way one might have had what was needed independent of how things were, viz, through luck. If the universe
had just been slightly different in the right way, or if the right
kind of difference (e.g. the right choice) spontaneously arose,
then without you bringing about either, you could have had
either in place, through luck. So we can see how luck comes
into play by providing or depriving us of the chance to have
different thoughts and actions occur. It might also be thought
possible apart from luck to have had things turn out differently: if one chooses ones choices, for example. To be a choice
means there must have been alternatives. But clearly one still
didnt have what sufficed to have made the different choice;
and so, just as before, luck comes into play. (Notice also that
the series of choices either had no beginning, hence no choice
was made which accounts for the series being in place, or if it
did begin, the primary lack of choice still holds, since no
chooser can create itself, which would be a necessary condition
of choosing to bring the choice-making about.)
When thinking how misfortune has deprived someone of
what is needed for doing better, we sometimes respond compassionately by communicating that the person would have done
better at controlling their over-eating/smoking/alcoholism/other
temptations if they could have. When we realize that luck is
required to put into place what was needed in order to have
what would have enabled us to have done better, more compassion might arise towards ourselves and others, as we see how the
trouble we bring about is also what fortune sets up for us.

Alan Brody has a PhD in Philosophy, and is a licensed

psychotherapist and addiction specialist living in Santa Fe.
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 17

Platos Neurobiology
Elizabeth Laidlaw explores some parallels between a modern picture of the brain
and Platos description of the psyche.

evelopments in neurobiology reveal

a picture of the brain with many
parallels to Platos description of the psyche. Given that Platos
moral theory is built on his
description of the psyche, lets
explore what insight this
analogy might provide for
developing a moral theory
based on our knowledge
of the brain. How might
this help philosophers to
reach agreement about specific moral issues? For example, how ought we to assess
the morality of a fourteenyear-old choosing to have
a baby or a fifteen-yearold teen shooting a police
officer in the back?

or rational brain

limbic or emotional
brain stem or
survival brain

The Triune Brain

Like Howard Gardners
multiple intelligence theory,
neuroscientist Paul MacLeans
ideas of the triune brain grew
out of observing extreme cases
of neural disorders seizures
and extreme emotions.
MacLeans picture of a tripartite
brain structure facilitated development in the science of mental diseases
like anorexia nervosa. (See The Triune Brain in Evolution, Paul
MacLean, Plenum Press, 1990.)
The triune brain consists of three brain structures nestled
within each other (see figure). The innermost part, the first to
have evolved, is the survival brain, alternatively referred to as
the reptilian brain or the brain stem. This controls essential functions of breathing and reproduction, as well as other reflexive,
instinctual functions. The middle, limbic brain, or the emotional
brain, evolved after the reptilian brain, but before the neocortex. It sorts incoming information as pleasurable or painful (or
alternatively, as promising or threatening). Emotion originates
in this part of the brain, and its purpose is to compel us to act.
As we grow, the third part, the rational brain, or the neocortex,
takes on the job of managing the emotion-laden brain activity.
This part of the brain plans, weighs alternatives, makes decisions, and regulates emotional impulses. It is the only part of
the brain that produces an awareness of the other two parts,
and of itself. According to neuroscience, babies are born with
fairly well-developed reptilian (survival) and emotional brains,
but the rational brain takes years to fully develop, physically
18 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

and functionally. Psychologists tell us that this feature of

brain growth helps explain young peoples lack of ability to adequately regulate emotion and weigh
alternatives, leading to impulsiveness (see for
instance Harry Chugani, A Critical Period of
Brain Development, Preventive Medicine 27,
The three parts of the brain are in communication with each other sometimes. Howard Bath says that the
highway from the survival and emotional brains to the rational brain
develops much earlier than the path
from the rational part to the emotional and survival parts. For our first
two decades of life, therefore, the survival and emotional brains are calling most
of the shots, most of the time. To mature,
the emotional and rational parts of the
brain require development of their
neural highways. This development
comes from interacting with other
brains other people. So, even at
this very basic level, we need each
other. More specifically, the interaction is most needed when we are
young, while our brains are developing. Thus Bath advises: A large part of the
task of parents, teachers, counselors, and mentors is to
help youth finish wiring their brains. The most powerful effect
on positive brain development comes from connections with
positive, caring adults and peers (Howard Bath, Our Amazing
Brains, Reclaiming Children and Youth 14.3, 2005).
Continuous and positive interaction during the first year and
a half of life is critical to moral development, since early experiences program us to react to our environment in predictable
ways. If our early relationships are negative, we develop neural
pathways that lead us toward unsociable, sometimes violent
actions a.k.a. adaptively generated primitive actions. If we
have no early relationships, our brains literally wont grow the
neurons necessary for us to relate to the social world.
Louis Cozolino observes about adults who were abused as
children: the brains of these children have been shaped to survive, but are ill-equipped to negotiate the peace (Its a Jungle
in There, Louis Cozolino, Psychotherapy Networker, Sept/Oct
2008). He argues that one needs the expertise of a psychotherapist to help the survivors capacity for self-awareness emerge in
the rational brain, and to further develop the pathways of communication with, and begin to mediate the impulses from, the
other two parts of the brain. Success may be thwarted by the
bodys own biology here, since the unconscious impulses from
the survival and emotional aspects of the brain arrive at a rate

six times greater than the rational brain can process.

Cozolino continues, We can help our clients become more
consciously clear-sighted about themselves by helping them
become aware of the unconscious, irrational impulses arising
from the older regions of the brain. Reading Cozolinos words
here brought to my mind Socrates idea of purging falsehood
from a persons thinking to prepare them to apprehend the
Forms. I began to ponder how closely the triune map of the
brain and Cozolinos prescription matched up with the concept
of the soul and the moral theory emerging from Platos Republic.
Platos Conception of the Soul and the Triune Brain
In the Republic the
psyche (mind or soul)
of a person is
described in terms of
function. Socrates
describes the psyche as
having three parts:
reason, spirit and
appetite, for which he
employs the metaphor of reason being a charioteer guiding the
chariot of the psyche as it is being pulled by two horses, spirit
and appetite (or will and desire). The function of the rational
part is to be wise, that is to rule with insight on behalf of the
entire soul. The courageous or high-spirited protective part is
subject to, but an ally of, the rational part. The appetitive part
is ruled over by the other two. Compare this concept with the
concept of the triune brain. The reason part of the Platonic
psyche can be said to be equivalent to the rational brain, the
neocortex; the spirited part of the psyche with the emotional
brain, or limbic system; and the basic, appetitive part of the
mind, with the survival or reptilian part of the brain. You
might agree that the analogy makes a close fit.
Louis Cozolino argues for the importance of the triune
brain model for the successful psychotherapist. Similarly to
how Plato analyses the soul, Cozolino describes the three
brains as having distinctive manners and unique agendas,
sometimes in conflict with one another. Executive decisions
are made at each level, and these decisions often oppose one
another. For example, the rational part of the brain may reason
to stop smoking, while the emotional part of the brain desires
to continue puffing away.
The moral theory emerging from the Republic is that a
person ought to aspire to know the Forms of things like Justice, Beauty, Good(ness), etc so that she can use this knowledge
to order herself justly. Yet the Republics Cave metaphor suggests that only in certain circumstances can we get through a
sort of epistemic cloudiness to see the Forms (Republic 63) [see
box in second article Ed]. The lesson from the Cave allegory
is that a person must be educated to be unshackled from her
false beliefs, so that she may be receptive to the abstractions of
the Forms. Having apprehended the form of the Good, she
reasons her way back into the cave, this time armed with the
knowledge of the Forms, or as we might say, a knowledge of
ultimate truth. Much is at stake here: Plato thinks that the
destruction of his hypothetical Republic will be a consequence
of people acting on unjustified false beliefs, for example that

wealth or honor matter more than anything else. Education

tries to overturn false beliefs. Unfortunately, thinks Plato, most
adults are not sufficiently advanced intellectually to go on to
acquire true or ultimate knowledge, which is knowledge of the
Forms. On Platos view, only with knowledge of the Forms can
the educators of the Republic properly encourage recollection
and the purging of false beliefs in the people. Furthermore, to
survive, the Republic must also produce a philosopher king,
whose knowledge of the Forms means he can rule with
wisdom through a knowledge of the higher (or deeper) truth.
Now the survival brain is very potent: it controls most
bodily actions, and can allow independent survival from birth;
but the emotional and rational brain thrive only if they are
successful in early relationships (ibid). If those early relationships inhibit or misdirect brain growth, it takes the skill of a
seasoned psychotherapist to safely readjust the rational brains
ability to moderate the illogical, deeply-seated survival strategies originating from the primitive and emotional brains. The
curse of teens resolving their differences with bullets and
blades is often rooted in these deeply-imbedded illogical survival patterns. Hence if enlightened by recent findings of neuroscience, Plato would perhaps instead admonish us to develop
quality relationships with children during infancy and early
childhood, in order to promote their development of the faculty of reason. The ability to reason well is necessary to judging well, and so is necessary for the appointment of good
guardians and philosopher-kings. And in addition to requiring
nurturing during early childhood in this way, and afterwards
the grooming of ones soul until it is well-ordered, Platos third
mandate would be to establish a well-funded mental health
care system for the care of the soul, as he might say.
Perhaps the most obvious philosophical objection to these
brain-based conclusions is that, in using neuroscience to guide
ethics, this Neuro-Moral Theory commits the naturalistic
fallacy. Can our survival instincts and our need to thrive tell us
what we morally ought to do? The debate over whether or not
it is a fallacy to derive conclusions about how the world ought to
be solely from factual claims about how the world is began with
David Hume three centuries ago. Hume warned of the logical
difficulty of this move, pointing out that nothing can appear in
the conclusion of an argument which does not appear in its
premises. So is it logically possible to deduce how we ought to
raise and judge children from the experimental results of neuroscience? Yes, it is. The Neuro-Moral Theory takes seriously
the constraints of human biology and, rather than committing
the fallacy of deriving what we ought to do from what is the
case, is supported by the philosophical wisdom that ought
implies can. That is, what we are morally obligated to do must
be within our grasp. What Im suggesting is that we use the
lessons of neuroscience to guide our decisions about the education of children, and about our moral assessment of them. Like
Plato I am suggesting that being moral requires good thinking,
which (unlike Plato) I say requires good brain development.

Elizabeth Laidlaw is the author of Platos Epistemology: How

Hard Is It To Know? (Peter Lang Publishing, 1996). She is
Associate Professor of Philosophy at Monroe Community College in
Rochester, New York.
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 19

Galahad vs Odysseus
Emrys Westacott on honour codes and strategic thinking in sport and beyond.

n the last seconds of extra time in the 2010 soccer World

Cup quarter final between Ghana and Uruguay, with the
score at 1-1, Ghana were awarded a free kick deep in the
Uruguayan half. The ball was crossed into the penalty area and a
goalmouth scramble ensued. Twice the ball headed toward the
net, and twice it was cleared off the line by Uruguayan striker
Luis Suarez: the first time with his knee, the second time with
his hands. Following the rule book exactly, the referee awarded
Ghana a penalty and showed Suarez the red card.
Suarez left the field in tears. Most penalties are converted
into goals, so at that moment it seemed overwhelmingly likely
that Ghana would score and become the first African nation
ever to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. An entire continent readied itself for ecstatic celebrations. Sadly for the
Africans, Asomoah Gyans penalty hit the crossbar. The game
went to a penalty shoot-out, which Uruguay won.
Afterwards, Suarez boasted that he had made the best save
of the tournament, and was entirely unrepentant. I did it,
he said, so that my team-mates could win the shoot-out.
When I saw Gyan miss the penalty, it felt great.
Sir Galahad

Naturally, a Great Debate immediately ensued among

soccer aficionados and other moralists around the world. Many
were outraged that Ghana had been defeated by what they saw
as a blatant piece of cheating. Others denied that Suarez had
cheated, pointing out that the hand-ball had been instinctive
rather than premeditated.
This incident raises all sorts of questions. Did Suarez cheat?
If what he did wasnt cheating, was it, nevertheless, unsporting?
If so, should we describe his action as unethical? It also offers
an opportunity for a meta-reflection on how we decide and
how we should decide what view to take when confronted
with controversies of this sort.
Enter The Champions
Lets begin by giving names to two opposing views of
Suarezs hand-ball. The Odyssian perspective, named for
Homers famously crafty hero, says that Suarez should be
praised for his cleverness. What he did might have been foolish
in some circumstances, but in the last seconds of extra time in a
knockout round he has nothing to lose. If he lets the ball past
him, Uruguay are out of the competition.
The Odyssian perspective admires success. It focuses on
ends and doesnt worry much about means. By contrast, what
we can call the Galahadian attitude is not prepared to compromise ethical principles for the sake of achieving some end, no
matter how great. To disciples of Galahad, the purest of King
Arthurs knights, virtue is non-negotiable. A code of conduct
lays down what is right, and abiding by this code is always and
everywhere a Galahadians first concern. From this point of
view, Suarez acted dishonorably by violating the code. Far from
being a hero, he is a sinner, a moral cynic whose reprehensible
methods sully the prize he secured for his team.
Which of these perspectives is preferable? In order to answer
this question we have first to settle the more basic question: how
should we go about deciding which point of view to prefer?
Uncovering Cheating in Sport
One obvious approach is to ask: Did Suarez cheat? Underlying this question is the widely-held assumption that cheating is
wrong. So if we can prove that he cheated, we will have proved
that what he did should be condemned. But although the question is one that occurs naturally, it will only help resolve the
issue if we have a generally-agreed-upon definition of cheating.
We dont, and there are two main reasons for this.
First, the concept of cheating is surprisingly hard to define
with precision. For instance, must cheating involve breaking
the rules? Some kinds of cheating do, but not all. Tennis players who, in unofficiated matches, call an opponents ball out
when they suspect it may be good dont break the rules, they
merely violate what is known as the code. Yet they are universally regarded as cheats. Must cheating involve some sort of
deception? It often does. Marathon runners hitching rides
clearly seek to deceive. But not all cheating is like that. If Suarez
had caught the ball, handed it to the referee, and left the field,
his action would have been essentially the same, yet he could

20 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

hardly be accused in that case of trying to deceive anyone.

The second problem with appealing to a definition of
cheating is that the concept is normatively loaded. Like
murder or perversion, cheating is a pejorative term. That is
why although Suarez, his coach, and his teammates readily
admitted that he handled the ball, none of them would concede that he cheated, preferring to reserve that term for other
sorts of offence, such as those that are pre-meditated. Asking
whether or not Suarez cheated thus gets us nowhere.
A second common approach in deciding what view to take
of what Suarez did involves appealing to a principle of consistency. Here we are invited to compare our view of the Suarez
episode with the way we regard other incidents we consider
analogous. For instance, Odyssians might point out that in
basketball it is standard practice for players to deliberately foul
opponents, especially near the end of a game, in order to stop
the clock and regain possession once the free throws have been
made. Hardly anyone sees this as morally dubious it is simply
viewed as an intelligent tactic, and commentators will even call
these fouls good fouls.
Galahadians, on the other hand, can point out that that in
some other sports, an action comparable to Suarezs hand-ball
would be universally viewed as outrageously unsporting. For
instance, they might liken what Suarez did to a golfer kicking
away an opponents putt just before it reaches the hole an
action so shockingly improper it could cost you your country
club membership.
But appealing to consistency, like appealing to the definition of cheating, turns out to be a dead end. It cannot, by itself,
resolve the dispute between Odysseus and Galahad. There are
two reasons for this.
First, both sides can equally well make this appeal. Odysseus
will point to the general acceptance in basketball of deliberate
fouls provided they are properly penalized and argue that a
similar attitude should become the norm in soccer. But Galahad will mirror this maneuver and argue that since deliberate
fouls are considered unsporting in soccer, we should extend
this view to other sports, like basketball. Since both sides are
appealing to the principle of consistency here, that principle
can hardly be used to settle the dispute.
Second, there are different ways of being consistent. One
form of consistency, for instance, would be to recognize that different sports have different conventions and to go along with
these, whatever they are. From this perspective, one wont
expect ice hockey players to treat their opponents the way
golfers do: rather, one consistently assesses conduct as sporting
or unsporting in relation to the prevailing ethos within the sport
being played. But suppose, instead, that one judged all conduct
by all players in all sports by reference to the same ideal of
sportsmanship say, the ideal usually found in golf. That would
be an alternative sort of consistency. Yet how do we decide
which kind of consistency should be preferred? Obviously, we
cant appeal to the principle of consistency to settle the issue.

prefer? We have seen that appealing to the definition of cheating or to a principle of consistency doesnt help. These are
dead ends that dont take us beyond the impasse of the original
opposition between the two perspectives. So how might we get
beyond this impasse? In my view, the most fruitful approach is
to ask which we would prefer: a world in which soccer is played
in an Odyssian spirit, or one in which Galahadian attitudes prevail. If we prefer the former, then we have no reason to criticize Suarez; we might even applaud him. If we prefer the
latter, then it makes sense to disapprove of his action.
Notice, this is a thoroughly pragmatist way of addressing the
issue. It doesnt assume there is any objective way of judging the
morality of Suarezs hand-ball. Instead, it holds that moral positions should be adopted or rejected according to how well they
further our purposes and help us realize our ideals. It also assumes
that our expressions of approval or disapproval may help nudge
the ethos of a sport and perhaps also of other sports, and ultimately, the culture at large toward our preferred ideal.
There has been little systematic research on this, but it
seems reasonable to suppose that if they adopt this approach,
most people involved with soccer or any other sport will be led
to disapprove of Suarezs hand-ball, since there are good reasons
to prefer a sports culture in which Galahadian norms prevail.
Odysseus: On
the head, son!
(Never mind
the hands)

Choosing Sides
Lets return to our original question. In the debate over
Suarezs hand-ball, two competing outlooks emerged: the
Odyssian and the Galahadian. How should we decide which to
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 21

For match officials and administrators, the question is a nobrainer. Matches would be easier to officiate, and referees
would spend less time wiping egg off their faces after video
replays proved that they had once again been duped by some
cunning piece of gamesmanship. Most players, one supposes,
would also favor this environment. Competitors in sports
where thoroughly sporting attitudes are the norm certainly
dont seem to enjoy themselves less. On the contrary, where
cheating and gamesmanship abound, there tends to be more
anger, bitterness, and even occasional violence. Also significant
are studies showing that most athletes support drug testing as a
deterrent against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in
sport. While doping isnt quite the same as pretending to have
been fouled, using drugs to gain an advantage obviously reflects
an Odyssian attitude. (The hero of the Odyssey generally relies
on Athena rather than amphetamines to enhance his performance, but the principle is similar.) Yet even those who have
adopted the Odyssian attitude usually wish things were otherwise. They would prefer to operate in a drug-free environment,
and if they take drugs themselves, they do so because they
believe they must in order to compete in a wicked world.
No doubt there are some players and coaches who thrive in
a Machiavellian atmosphere, who pride themselves on their
ruthless, unsentimental natures, and relish the need for the
keener wits that an Odyssian contest requires. According to
them, Winning isnt everything its the only thing. According to them, nice guys and Galahad is unquestionably one of
these finish last. (Its not true that Galahad finished last: one
could even say he won the cup! But mythic figures dont make
good counterexamples.) But we should not assume that feisty
Machiavellians represent the norm in sport. The majority of
participants would surely prefer to compete in a setting where
a strong honor code is in place and they dont have to worry
about anyones dirty tricks.
What about the largest group of those involved the spectators? If a Galahadian attitude prevailed, would soccer be more
enjoyable to watch, or less? Some might argue that soccer
played in a spirit of unblemished sportsmanship would be
anemic. After all, the players that reach the highest levels are
fiercely competitive individuals; if they werent, they wouldnt
have made it to the top. In a physically-demanding, fast-moving,
full-of-passion contact sport, this competitiveness is not easily
held in check. Inevitably, at times it spills over into rule-bending, rule-breaking, gamesmanship, and physical aggression.
Moreover, part of the appeal of soccer is the drama of the
game. Competitive intensity and passion fuel this drama; and
sometimes decidedly unGalahadian episodes can enhance the
spectacle. Games have a narrative, and sometimes the story is
that old favorite, the battle between good and evil, with certain
players, or even whole teams, playing the despised but necessary role of villain. The disputed penalty, the flourishing of a
red card, the controversies surrounding subtle bits of gamesmanship, the pleasurable experience of hurling abuse at wicked
opponents and gullible officials, all add to the theatricality.
Drain away these elements and soccer might certainly be more
sporting, but wouldnt it also lose some of its color and excitement? So might say the Odyssians, and they could probably
count on tabloid editors for support.
22 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

On the other side of the ledger, were a Galahadian ethos to

prevail in soccer there would be no more diving for free kicks,
feigning injury to waste time or get opponents sent off, underhand shirt pulling, cynical tripping to blot out promising
counter-attacks, discrete elbows in the face, or not-so-discrete
tackles designed to injure or intimidate. Whatever small loss
might be incurred in the realm of competitive intensity would be
more than compensated for in most peoples eyes by a freer-flowing game. Soccer is, after all, supposed to be the beautiful game.
Moreover, Galahadian sport would offer its own form of
pleasing dramatics the sort of heroically sporting behavior that
would follow were players actions governed by the consideration: What would Galahad do? An incident that made the local
newspapers in 2008 offers a memorable illustration of such
sportsmanship beyond expectations. In a softball game between
the University of Western Oregon and Central Washington
University, Sara Tucholski hit a home run for UWO but failed
to touch first base as she ran around the diamond. Realizing her
mistake, she turned back to first base, but in doing so she twisted
her knee badly and collapsed in pain. Stuck at first base and
unable to progress around the bases unassisted (under the rules,
no teammate could assist her), it seemed the only option was for
her to be replaced by a pinch runner, thereby reducing a well-hit
home run to a mere single. But then two players from the fielding team went over to first base, helped her up, and carried her
around the bases, making sure she touched each one in turn. As
the trio group reached home plate, many of the players, as well
as spectators from both teams, were moved to tears by such an
outstanding display of sportsmanship.
Lest it be thought that this sort of thing would only occur
among amateurs or only among females! consider the
example of tennis player Andy Roddick. In the 2005 Rome
Masters, Roddick was at match point against Fernando Verdasco. Verdascos second serve was called out. The double fault
would have given Roddick the match, but Roddick told the



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umpire it was good. His honesty handed Verdasco a lifeline

which, as it turned out, enabled Verdasco to win that game
and, eventually, the match.
Sporting generosity of this sort even appears on the soccer
field, at times. In a 2001 English Premier League game
between West Ham and Everton, the Everton goalkeeper went
down injured during a West Ham attack. The ball was crossed
to the Hammers striker Paolo di Canio; but instead of trying
to score into an unguarded net, di Canio caught the ball and
indicated that the keeper needed urgent attention. Supporters
of both teams gave him a standing ovation.
Such examples of outstanding sporting behavior and many
more could be cited show that the Galahadian attitude is
possible even in the heat of gladiatorial combat. They also
underscore the fact that most people enjoy witnessing sportsmanship of this order and approve of it strongly.
Worlds of Sport
A Galahadian ethos would not only help to eliminate cynical cheating, it would also make exemplary sportsmanship the
norm. To imagine how things would be in this alternative universe, consider two other controversies connected with the
2010 World Cup.
France qualified for the competition by beating Ireland.
The winning goal was set up by the French captain Thierry
Henry after he had clearly handled the ball. The Irish were
naturally outraged. French supporters, after their initial jubilation, became decidedly shamefaced. Many, including the
French sports minister, the newspaper Libration, and the trade
union representing gym teachers (only in France!) urged a
rematch. When Le Monde polled its readers on whether France
deserved to be in the World Cup, 88% said no.
Henrys reaction was inconsistent. Immediately after the
goal he jubilated with his team-mates; at the end of the game
he consoled his defeated opponents. Interviewed afterwards he
admitted handling the ball, but made no apology, saying, I am
not the referee. Two days later, aware of mounting criticism,
he said he regretted celebrating the goal as he had done, and
(unlike the French Football Federation) supported the idea of
replaying the game.
What would Galahad have done? Thats easy to say. One can
readily accept Henrys claim that the hand-ball was an instinctive reaction as the ball came quickly to him at an awkward
height. But once it has occurred, the sporting thing the Galahadian thing to do is obviously not to celebrate, but to tell the
referee that the ball was handled and that the goal should not
stand. If the referee is so pig-headed as to refuse to change his
decision, then the French team could gift their opponents a
goal, as the Dutch team Ajax once did in a game against Cambuur after they accidentally scored whilst voluntarily returning
possession to their opponents following a stoppage.
The second-most-controversial incident of the 2010 World
Cup in South Africa (the Suarez hand-ball being the first)
occurred in the second round match between England and
Germany. The English midfielder Frank Lampard fired in a
shot that beat the German keeper, Manuel Neuer, struck the
crossbar, bounced down into the goal, hit the ground about two
feet past the goal line, and then bounced back out of the goal,
24 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

where it was caught by Neuer, who quickly threw it to one of

his team, thereby suggesting that there was no reason for the
game to be halted. Remarkably, neither the referee nor his
assistant saw that the ball had crossed the line. Play was waved
on, and a few minutes later the whistle blew for half time. Germany went on to win the game 4-1.
Neuer said about the incident, I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I think the way
I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not
over. Cleary, Neuer is of the Odyssian persuasion. He knew a
goal had been scored, quick-wittedly saw a chance to deceive the
referee, and took it. Afterwards he was unapologetic. From an
Odyssian point of view, of course, what Neuer did was entirely
rational. In sport as in life, a lot depends on luck. The officials
failure to spot the goal was a huge slice of luck for Germany. But
over the long haul, good and bad luck balances out, so the
Odyssian attitude is to accept whatever good fortune comes your
way to make gift horses, rather than look them in the mouth.
But what would Galahad have done had he been in Neuers
shoes? Again, the answer is obvious. He would have signaled
to the referee that the ball had crossed the line, disdaining to
take advantage of a refereeing blunder and sparing the officials
their subsequent embarrassment.
This did not happen, of course, and no one expected it. And
given that Galahadian attitudes are not the current default in
soccer, it was perhaps too much to expect in the heat of the
moment. But a few minutes later the whole German team,
assembled in the dressing room at half time, would have seen the
replays and become fully aware that, by rights, the score should
have been 2-2. Here they were no longer operating in the heat of
the moment. And here was a marvelous opportunity to give
soccer, and sport in general, a massive injection of Galahadian
spirit. Had Galahad been giving the half-time team talk, he
would have instructed his captain to pass the ball to the English
team at the kick-off and allow them to score unopposed, thereby
leveling the scores. The world would have been stunned; but
once it had grasped what had happened, the world would almost
certainly have given the Germans a deafening standing ovation.
So, to return to our original question: How should we
decide what view to take of Suarezs hand-ball? If we are convinced that soccer would be more enjoyable for almost everyone concerned should a Galahadian ethos become the norm,
that gives us a reason to praise displays of outstanding sportsmanship and to criticize anyone who employs less than honorable methods to gain an advantage.
The purpose and rationale for our verdict is the same in both
cases: to help nudge soccer toward the Galahadian ideal. It doesnt follow automatically that we should take a similar line in every
other sport. The pragmatic approach advocated here does not
fetishize abstract consistency. Conceivably, some sports might be
more enjoyable without a strict honor code in place. The only
example that comes to mind, though, is all-in wrestling; and that
is more properly classified as theater rather than sport. It seems
reasonable, therefore, tentatively to generalize the Galahadian
prescription across all sports. Eventually the ideal may be realized
where every competitor has an internal voice of conscience that
nips the very idea of dishonorable actions in the bud by asking
always, everywhere: What would Galahad do?

Wider Fields
Whether the Galahadian attitude should be extended to
moral issues beyond sport is an interesting question. Certainly, there are controversies that are strikingly parallel in
form to the debate over Suarezs hand-ball, and sometimes, an
analysis of one debate can usefully illuminate an issue in a
quite different sphere. To take just one example: is it unethical
for homeowners to default on their mortgages simply because
it is in their financial interest to do so?
With the sharp decline in house prices in many countries
which began in 2006, this question has arisen for millions of
people who have found themselves underwater. If you are
making payments on a $200,000 mortgage to buy a house that
is now worth $100,000, you may be better off walking away
from the loan. Continuing with your monthly payments is like
buying stock for $20 a share when its current market value is
$10 a share. Its a bad investment. From a strictly financial
point of view, a strategic default may be the best option.
As with the Suarez controversy, there are two main schools
of thought. On the one hand, there are the moralists disciples
of Galahad who see strategic defaulting as unethical. Signing
a mortgage contract, they argue, is like making a promise. And
just as it is dishonorable to break a promise for self-serving reasons, so it is wrong to renege on a contract unless breaking it is
unavoidable. This is the view taken by a majority of Americans
in 2010 according to a Pew Research Center study.
On the other hand, there are the legalists who point out that
the contract signed by the bank and the homeowner stipulates
what will happen if the borrower stops making payments. Typically, in that case, the bank is entitled to foreclose on the property. To the business mentality, the question of whether one
should strategically default on a loan is entirely a financial
matter. Morality doesnt come into it. One looks at the terms
of the contract and calculates the bottom line. Obviously, this
way of thinking parallels the Odyssian view of Suarezs handball: there are times when it is makes sense to break the rules
and pay the prescribed penalty. If the other party feels
aggrieved, the appropriate course of action isnt for them to
scream Cheat! or Swindler! but to lobby for a change in
the rules. In soccer, the referees could be allowed to award
penalty goals, just as in rugby they can award penalty tries. In
banking, the penalties for defaulting on loans could be made so
severe that it would never be an attractive option.

The parallel between the Suarez controversy and the debate

over strategic defaulting is almost exact. One side views breaking the contract as unethical; the other side views it as a legitimate option. Here, too, there is a temptation to settle the
matter quickly by appealing to a supposedly self-evident principle such as Thou shalt honor thy contracts, or by claiming
that a contract is, by definition, a kind of promise, and
promise-breaking is wrong; or, from the other side, by showing how justifying strategic defaulting is consistent with ones
position on other supposedly similar questions. But, as with
the Suarez controversy, these argumentative strategies dont so
much settle the dispute as short circuit it. They assume there is
a Right Way, the rightness of which can be demonstrated.
By contrast, the pragmatic approach makes no such assumption. Instead it asks which way of thinking we would like to see
prevail. If we would prefer a world in which people consider
honoring contracts a moral obligation, and we see this as a realistic possibility, then that would be a reason to side with the
moralists. If, on the other hand, we think things would be better
were everyone on the same page as the unperturbed strategic
defaulters, that would be a reason for endorsing their position.
And doing so doesnt make us cynical amoralists. It may simply
be that we think that promoting the strategic attitude will do
more good than harm since fewer people will bankrupt themselves, sacrificing their happiness, their childrens education, and
other worthwhile things on the altar of abstract moral principle.
Moreover, it might help level the playing field between the little
folk, who view defaulting as shameful, and Big Finance, who
dont wear this particular moral straightjacket.
If, as a third possibility, we believe that the moralists attitude is destined for the dustbin of history but worry that widespread strategic defaulting would have bad economic consequences or undermine moral fiber, then we should urge that
contracts or the law be written to make strategic defaulting so
costly as to be irrational.
The Final Score
The earlier analysis of the Suarez controversy can be mapped
onto many other moral debates in a similar way. But it is important to recognize that the pragmatic approach allows one to take
different sides in different debates. One could advocate Galahadianism on the sports field without committing oneself to a moralistic view on mortgage defaults. And those who share the pragmatic
perspective may still disagree over which ideals they prefer. One
may find the Galahadian ideal attractive, both within sport and in
other domains, yet recognize that others may rationally prefer an
Odyssian world, relishing the opportunities it gives for playing the
Great Game the unceasing battle to outwit everyone else in
sport, in business, in politics, in life. Nevertheless, the pragmatic
approach, precisely because it avoids the rigidity of moral stances
that appeal to definitions or pride themselves on their unbending
commitment to objective principles, is inherently flexible. And
this makes it well-suited to a time when our forms of life, including our social conventions, are in constant flux.

Emrys Westacott is Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University in

Western New York. His most recent book is The Virtues of Our
Vices (Princeton University Press, 2011).
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 25

The Ethics of Taxation


n the Western world the proportion of the economy controlled

by the state has grown enormously over the last century, and
pressures on the state are set to rise
as people live longer, meaning that
tax will continue to rise for the great
majority of the population. What
are the rights and wrongs of asking
so many people to pay so much?
To answer this we can ask several
questions, including how much tax
should be collected in total, which
objectives of taxation are legitimate,
and how individuals should conduct
themselves as taxpayers. We will
address these questions by using
arguments from political philosophy,
and the following three approaches
to ethics:

Utilitarianism, which tells us to aim

for the greatest total happiness

across the population. In the economic sphere, we can interpret happiness as the satisfaction of our
desires; and so utilitarianism as
aiming for maximum satisfaction of desires.
Deontology, which bases ethics on the idea of duty.
Virtue ethics, which focus on the virtues we should have, and

on what constitutes a virtuous life. A broad conception of the

virtues must be used here, encompassing not only virtues such
as honesty, but also virtues such as using ones talents and leading a fulfilled life.
The Total Amount of Tax
For a utilitarian the most important economic goals are to
ensure that goods and services are available to allow everyone
to have a decent life, and to ensure that these resources are
distributed widely enough for all or most people to enjoy
them. A true utilitarian would only care about total satisfaction, not about the evenness of its distribution, but with taxation were discussing the distribution of resources. If each
person has modest resources, that should generate more satisfaction in total than if the same total resources are concentrated in the hands of a few people. Taxation plus government
spending are an obvious way to achieve redistribution to
ensure that everybody gets something.
There is a certain tension here. Taxation and spending help
to achieve wide resource distribution, but high rates of tax
reduce investment and incentives, which makes it hard to generate sufficient total resources. Too much redistribution may thus
26 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

mean too small a pie to share out.

Utilitarians must therefore strike a
balance. Economists, rather than
philosophers, are the ones to advise
them on how to do this balancing of
interest to get the most productive
result. This is not surprising. Utilitarianism merely lays down a computational rule. Utilitarians need
experts from other disciplines to do
the computations for them.
Unlike the utilitarian, the deontologist does not tell us to make
computations. Instead, he or she
lays down absolute duties. One
common such duty is to respect
other peoples property rights. This
could be interpreted to mean that
there should be no tax at all,
because tax is the forcible transfer
of property away from taxpayers.
On the other hand, the duty to
respect property rights could be
used to argue that any social
resources one used should be paid
for, even if one did not ask for those
resources to be provided. Thus in
order not to be a thief, anyone who uses a public hospital, or
even a public road, should make sure that he or she pays tax to
cover their use. But it is difficult to make this argument watertight. Is it realistic to ask people to opt out of using public
roads if they dont want to pay tax? They would have to move
to a wilderness somewhere. But why should they be made to
do that, when they already own their homes? Deontology
therefore does here what it often does. It offers arguments
which pull in opposite directions, and leaves us completely
uncertain about what to conclude.
Virtue ethics can be a bit more helpful on the question of
the justice of taxation. Several virtues seem more likely to be
exercised if tax rates are moderate than if they are very high.
One should use ones talents to the full. Financial incentives
can encourage people to use their talents, but very high taxation dampens down those incentives by reducing take-home
pay. Another virtue is charity, either in cash or in time. The
more take-home pay people have, the more likely it is that
they will feel able to afford charitable donations; and the
higher peoples pay rates, the easier it will be for them to take
time away from paid work to perform charity work or other
forms of civic service, as school governors or magistrates for
example. A third virtue is independence. It is good to earn
what one needs rather than to depend on subsidies from
others. Lower rates of taxation make independence more
easily achievable.
Let us also turn to political arguments based on the fact that


Richard Baron finds that philosophy need not be taxing.

taxation is coercive. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Robert

Nozick argued that imposed taxation is a violation of our rights.
Property is mainly shared out among us initially by a process of
acquisitions a long time ago, and by exchanges since then. If the
initial acquisitions and the subsequent exchanges were just, then
the current distribution of property is just, and it would be unjust
to interfere with that distribution by force. If people individually
agree to pay for things like a police service, thats fine; but the
majority should not force the unwilling minority to contribute.
One of the most interesting challenges to this line of
thought was given by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel in The
Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (2002). They say that we
should not think in terms of a natural distribution of income
and wealth, with a tax-levying state interfering with that distribution. Rather, the state is what gives the stability that allows
high incomes. They point out that in a world without government there would be no security of property, no system of
enforceable contracts, and so on. As a result, overall levels of
wealth would be much lower than they actually are. It is not the
case that the existing wealth would be distributed differently
without a tax-levying state: the wealth would mostly not exist.
This seems to be true. But Murphy and Nagels argument is
not enough to legitimise high levels of taxation and a big state.
Suppose we had a minimal state, which provided security and a
legal framework for business, but no more. So there would be
no state benefits, and all schools, hospitals and roads would be
private, profit-making, enterprises. The distribution of income
and wealth in that minimal state might be very different from
what it actually is, but the total income and wealth might not
be so different. Thus Nozick could reply that this distribution,
with a minimal state, should be assumed to be just. If so, any
coercive interference by taxation to create a bigger state would
violate peoples rights.
This response does not show that a big state would be
wrong, but it does put the pressure back on those who advocate a big state to show that a big state is justified despite the
coercion involved.
The Legitimate Objectives of Taxation
Tax can be used for all sorts of purposes,
and it is often clear what
ethicists of
any particular kind would
say about these purposes.
We can start with the provision of law and order and
the more extensive public
services such as healthcare and education.
Utilitarians will
approve of taxation
for these things
because they allow
more goods and
services to be
produced, and they
also allow more non-

materialistic desires to be satisfied. Virtue ethicists will approve

because these services enhance peoples opportunities to use
their talents and to lead flourishing lives.
When we turn to aid to the poor, utilitarians will approve
because transferring resources from rich to poor increases the
happiness of the poor more than it reduces the happiness of
the rich. Virtue ethicists will approve because with redistribution the poor can be helped to flourish and develop virtues,
and because looking after the less fortunate is itself a virtue
(although voluntary charity may be a greater virtue than forced
payment). And deontologists can recognize a duty to care for
the poor. The greatest of all deontologists, Immanuel Kant,
certainly believed in duty to the poor, although he did not have
a tax-funded welfare state in mind as a response. However,
none of this means that any kind of ethicist would favour
unlimited provision of any of these good things through the tax
system. As we have already seen, one has to consider the consequences of the overall level of taxation.
A more controversial objective is the promotion of equality,
in the sense of equality of economic outcome (ie wealth) rather
than of equality of opportunity. Taxation can very easily be used
to make the distribution of incomes and wealth more equal,
either by transferring cash from the rich to the poor, or by
providing the same state services to everyone while
taxing the rich more than the poor in order to pay for
them. Greater equality may also be an accidental outcome of using the tax system to do other things. But it
can also be a goal in itself. Is it legitimate to pursue
equality through taxation?
There is a utilitarian argument for greater economic equality. If more equal societies are happier,
more stable, have lower crime rates and so on,
then a utilitarian would want to promote
equality unless that interfered too
much with other utilitarian
objectives. We must let the
sociologists tell us
equal societies do
have those advantages.
One can also argue for
equality on the basis of justice. The idea is that if there
is no positive justification for
people receiving unequal
shares of the available
resources, then they should
receive equal shares, otherwise an
injustice is done to those who get
less than they would under an
equal distribution.
To consider the merits of this
argument we should start with the
work of John Rawls, and in particular with his book A Theory of Justice
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 27

Rawls argued that social inequalities should be arranged so

that the greatest benefit is gained by the people with the fewest
advantages. However, he says an unequal system might actually
benefit the disadvantaged more than an economically egalitarian
one. For example, inequalities of income would be perfectly
acceptable if they were a necessary result of there being incentives which encourage skilled people to work hard and entrepreneurial people to take risks, so long as the result was that those
with the least income-earning potential were still made better
off than they would otherwise have been. That looks sensible.
Why not let the rich grow richer, if the poor are helped by their
doing so? The poor will possibly even be grateful.
Not everyone accepts that inequalities like these would be
just. For example, in his book Rescuing Justice and Equality
(2008), Gerald Cohen argued that Rawls was far too permissive of inequality. He pointed out that we are free and conscious beings. However, the talented person who says that he
or she will only work hard, and thereby benefit the whole
economy, if enough money is offered, is acting like a vending
machine. A vending machine will only give you what you want
if you put the money in. But we are not vending machines. We
can work out what we would do, given the financial incentives.
Then we can decide to do it anyway, without the incentives.
Cohen said that we could work out what we would do in
Rawlss society, which has inequalities to give the right incentives to develop wealth, and then we could do the same things
without the incentives and without the inequality. Cohen
argued that this would give us even greater justice than Rawls
system would achieve. Cohen could not claim that this
approach would be practical the fact is that people do
respond to financial incentives but he could claim that it
would be just. At least, he could claim that, if we accepted the
basic premise that equality is generally more just than inequality. But should we accept that premise?
Rawls provides a key argument for equality. In his view, the
way to establish what means of distribution of goods and
resources is just, is to imagine what people would want if they
were designing a society in which they themselves would live,
but they had no idea of what family, talents or other circumstances they would have in that society. In that situation, they
could expect nothing better than an average share, and would
have no reason to accept as just anything substantially worse.
They would therefore choose an egalitarian society, subject to
the allowance for inequalities we have discussed.
But it is not at all clear that people would only accept
inequalities which benefited the worst-off, as Rawls supposes.
Suppose people had a choice between two societies, X and Y. In
both societies, everyone would have at least a tolerable standard
of living, and no-one would suffer abject poverty. In society X,
the worst-off person would have an income of 15,000 a year, a
few people would have incomes of 20,000, and the great majority would have incomes of 25,000. In society Y, the worst-off
person would have an income of 14,000, a few people would
have incomes of 19,000, and the great majority would have
incomes of 27,000. Someone making a choice of which society
they would prefer to be part of, but who did not know who they
would be within it (Rawls veil of ignorance), could reasonably
take a chance on being someone with the income of the major28 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

ity, and so prefer society Y. Rawls was wrong to assume that he

or she must rationally prefer society X.
The Conduct of Taxpayers
Most taxpayers pay their taxes, without fuss. But not all taxpayers act in this way. So lastly lets look at whether two other
forms of behaviour can be ethically acceptable: tax evasion, and
tax avoidance.
Tax evasion involves knowingly mis-reporting the facts: for
example, declaring an income of 50,000 when the true figure
is 60,000; or declaring that an asset is owned by one company
in a group when its really owned by another, so paying less tax.
It would be very hard to give an ethical justification for tax
evasion. One way to try to do so would be to argue that the
state, in imposing taxation, engaged in theft, and that in order
to prevent the theft one could lie to the state, just as one could
lie to a thief. This argument would have some plausibility in the
context of a regime that was imposed, rather than one democratically chosen in free elections. That is, it is possible to see a
regime that is not freely elected as merely a gang of bandits,
even if they are sometimes benevolent bandits. But there are
many countries in which governments are freely elected, and
therefore their taxation demands may be considered legitimate.
Unlike tax evasion, tax avoidance does not involve concealing
information or lying. Instead, it involves structuring business
transactions to ensure that less tax is payable than one might
otherwise expect. The most ethically challenging examples in
this area are to be found in the complex schemes used by some
groups involving networks of companies and partnerships in
several countries. Tax avoidance works through compliance with
the precise letter of the law, not through breaking the law. That
is to say, tax savings achieved may be accord with the words of
the law, but it is clear that if Parliament or other legislative
bodies in other countries had thought about such schemes, it
would have passed different laws in order to defeat them.
A utilitarian, concerned with aggregate welfare, might be quite
relaxed about tax avoidance. After all, when tax is avoided, wealth
is not destroyed: it is merely kept in the private sector instead of
being transferred to the public sector. The main utilitarian concern would probably be that it would result in an unintended distribution of the tax burden, as some of the burden would be
shifted from the rich onto people on modest incomes who cannot
afford clever tax lawyers. That would reduce their satisfaction
more than it would increase the satisfaction of the better-off
people who have reduced their tax burdens. But that loss to the
poor might not happen. For example, where shares in companies
are held by pension funds, the pensions of ordinary people can be
boosted when those companies avoid tax. A virtue ethicist would
be likely to view tax avoidance with disfavour. It is, after all, hardly
virtuous to exploit rules knowing that one is exploiting them in
unintended ways to redistribute the disadvantage away from oneself. A deontologist would not positively favour tax avoidance, but
might not condemn it either. Deontologists can easily argue for a
duty to obey the law: yet obeying the law is something the tax
avoider takes care to do, in his own special way.

Richard Baron is a philosopher and a tax policy adviser. His website is

Reason as a Universal Constant

Stuart Greenstreet asks if C.S. Lewis was right that reason proves the supernatural.

.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of

the most influential writers of his
day an intellectual giant, it was
said. He had, and still has, a vast audience
for his childrens fiction (The Chronicles of
Narnia) and for his many books written to
counter objections to religious belief
(notably Mere Christianity). Lewis taught
literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities all his adult life, and was made a
Cambridge professor in 1954. That he was
also a deep and lucid philosopher is evident
from his book Miracles (1947). Here he
built maybe the first logically sound and
convincing argument for the existence of something in addition
to nature, which we may call the supernatural. His argument
is analysed below. Will it convince you? If it is convincing,
then it has serious implications for those like Richard Dawkins
who vehemently deny anything in addition to nature.

Reasoning Beyond Nature

Can all natural phenomena ultimately be explained by science even the physical necessity we observe to govern the
behaviour of all natural things everywhere? Will science one
day find out why gravity and the speed of light and the other
fundamental physical constants are constant, and are also finetuned for intelligent life? No one yet knows how the constants came into being or why they are as they are, and so
natures laws seem to lack an accessible basis. Yet if the values
of those constants had been different, neither our world nor
life as we know it could have come into being. So the fundamental constants are the givens that set the very framework
of nature within which all events appear to have only natural
causes, and wherein science is done. This is the arena in
which naturalism prevails.
C.S. Lewis defined naturalism as the doctrine that only
Nature the whole interlocked system exists. And if that
were true, every thing and event would, if we knew enough, be
explicable without remainder as a necessary product of the
system (p.18). Lewis wrote these words in his book Miracles
(1947). Here he grants that there can be no miracles unless
there exists something else in addition to nature which we
may call the supernatural. This distinction, he explains, is not
between mind and matter, much less between soul and body,
but between nature and something else something which
Lewis believes has to exist in addition to nature, and which he
aims to identify.
To Lewis, a miracle would be an interference with Nature
by supernatural power (p.5). Lewiss definition is crucially
different to the one David Hume used in his celebrated essay
Of Miracles (1777) namely, that a miracle would be a violation of the laws of nature. This is still the popular idea of a
miracle: that it is a happening in which the laws of physics or
biology are suspended.

Lewis explicitly denies this. We are in the

habit of talking as if the laws of Nature
caused events to happen; but they have
never caused any event at all They state
the pattern to which every event if only it
can be induced to happen must conform
he writes in Miracles on p.93. So a miracle
would not violate or suspend natures laws,
but would rather feed new events into
nature. A miracle would occur if a supernatural cause was somehow fed into nature
and digested just like any other cause by
natures law-like system.
For Lewis naturalism would entail determinism. His view of nature is of a regime in which everything
that happens depends on something else happening within the
system, and ultimately on the whole system of interlocking
events. To show that miracles are possible, then, Lewis needs
to prove that something exists which neither depends on
natures interlocking system, nor could be explained as being a
necessary product of it. This singular exceptional item, he
decides, is rational thought, which is not part of the system of
C.S. Lewis

Acts of reasoning are not interlocked with the total interlocking system of
Nature as all its other items are interlocked with one another. They are
connected with it in a different way; as the understanding of a machine is
certainly connected with the machine, but not in the way the parts of the
machine are connected with each other. The knowledge of the thing is not
one of the things parts. In this sense something beyond Nature operates whenever we reason. (pp.37-38; my italics)

And so he decides that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural is actually between Reason and Nature,
the frontier coming not where the outer world ends and
what I would ordinarily call myself begins, but between
reason and the whole mass of non-rational events, whether
physical or psychological. (p.38)
To justify this conclusion, Lewis needs to prove that if all
events, including crucially mental events (acts of thinking),
were in fact causally determined, then we could never decide
anything by logical reasoning. We could never do so, he says,
because rational judgements do not depend on a causal relation
between causes and their effects, but on a logical relation
between premises and the conclusions we infer from them.
Lewis will then need a further argument to prove that logical
reasoning is not itself a natural capacity in the same way that
eyesight and hearing are definitely natural, since if reasoning
was natural in the same way, it would be subject to natural
causes in the way our senses are. He believes our power of reasoning did not come about in the same way as our five senses:
it was not evolved in us by a process of natural selection. But
why should anyone believe that the power of reason is not
simply a product of natural selection?
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 29

Supernatural Reasoning
Lewis begins his argument by claiming that all possible
knowledge of what is true depends on the validity of reasoning:
Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true he
says in Miracles on p.21.
Now a train of reasoning is valid, that is, has value as a
means of finding truth, only if each step is connected with
what went before in a ground-consequent relation. The easiest
way of illustrating this relation, Lewis suggests, is to notice
two distinct senses of the word because. We can say, Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday. We can also
say, Grandfather must be ill today because he hasnt got up
yet (and we know he is an invariably early riser when he is
well). In the first sentence because indicates the causal relation
of cause and effect: the eating made him ill. In the second, it
indicates the logical relation of ground and consequent: the old
mans late rising is the reason why we believe him to be unwell.
One indicates a connection between events or state of affairs,
the other a logical relation between beliefs or assertions.
Unless a conclusion is the logical consequent from a ground, it
will be worthless and could be true only by a fluke. Thus conclusions depend on logic rather than on physical causes for
their validity, even if those physical causes are, for example,
previous states of the brain.
Although Lewis never refers to it, Immanuel Kant had
advanced precisely this argument 160 years earlier in his
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). There Kant
wrote, We cannot possibly conceive of a reason as being consciously directed from outside in regard to its judgements. If a
rational being were conscious of any such external influence,
he would regard his judgements as determined, not by reason,
but by impulse. Reason must if it to be reason at all regard
itself as the author of its own principles independently of
external influences. (p.448) If every judgement which is the
conclusion of an argument was caused (i.e., determined) solely
by previous mental/brain events and yet was not a rational
insight into a connection between premises and conclusion,
there would be no difference between valid and invalid inferences, and ultimately there could be no truth. In that case a
doctrine of naturalism which entailed causal determinism

could not be accepted as true, nor could any argument in its

defence be accepted as valid. Hence Lewiss own claim that
Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. But
he took it as self-evident (as presumably we all do) that human
beings are able to make valid rational inferences and do form
true beliefs.
Lewiss argument reduces to this:
1) Naturalism (defined as the doctrine that only nature exists)
entails determinism.
2) If naturalism is true our beliefs are held on the basis of nonrational (ie deterministic) causes, and we would not be able to
make inferences.
3) In that case we are not able to cite reasons to justify holding
our beliefs.
4) But it is incontestable that we do in fact reach truths by logical inferences.
5) Therefore we must either reject naturalism as false, or stop
taking for granted that we reach true beliefs by logical inferences.
6) We cannot stop taking for granted that our beliefs are generally true.
7) Therefore we must conclude that naturalism is false, and
that something else exists in addition to nature.
Unsound Evolutions
Lewis thought that this refuted naturalism and proved the
truth of supernaturalism. However, as Kant knew, although
this argument is logically valid, it nevertheless may be
unsound. The second premise could be false. Even if naturalism were true, and all our thoughts and beliefs were causally
determined by antecedent events, we might still be able to
make inferences. Rational thinking was surely conducive to
survival and reproduction in our ancestors, hence a practice
which natural selection is bound to preserve and refine. If
there is nothing but nature, one would expect reason to have
come into existence by a historical process. So Lewis saw that
he had to disprove the claim that The type of mental behaviour we now call rational thinking or inference must have been
evolved by natural selection, by the gradual weeding out of
types less fitted to survive. (p.28).

by Michelangelo

30 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

Natural selection operates by eliminating biologically

harmful responses and preserving responses which tend to aid
survival. But how can any biological improvement in
responses ever turn them into acts of logical
insight into a power of seeing how a
valid arguments conclusion must
follow from its premises? The relation between response and stimulus is categorically different
from that between knowledge
and the truth known: Our
physical vision is a far more
useful response to light
than that of the cruder
organisms which have only
a photo-sensitive spot. But
neither this improvement
nor any possible improvements we can suppose could
bring it an inch nearer to
being knowledge of light. It is
admittedly something without
which we could not have had that
knowledge. But the knowledge is
achieved by experiments and inferences
from them, not by refinement of the
response. It is not men with specially good
eyes who know about light, but men who have studied
the relevant sciences. (Miracles, p.29.)
Vision is a physical or bodily response, but our psychological
responses to our environment our curiosities, aversions,
delights, expectations might likewise be indefinitely
improved without ever becoming anything other than
responses. If our psychological responses (in contrast to our
logical insight) were slowly perfected by natural selection, then
that might count as a different method for achieving survival
as an alternative to reason: A conditioning which secured
that we never felt delight except in the useful or aversion save
from the dangerous, and that degrees of both were exquisitely
proportional to the degree of real utility or danger in the
object, might serve us as well as reason or in some circumstances better, Lewis writes on p.29. But even if such refinement of our non-rational psychological responses did happen,
it could never convert them from being mere reactions to a cause
into being valid inferences.
Finally Lewis considers the possibility that although reason
did not evolve through natural selection, it may have been produced naturalistically through experience originally individual
experience, but the results passed on by tradition and instruction. For instance, if we often experienced finding fire (or the
remains of a fire) where we had seen smoke, this would condition us to expect fire whenever we saw smoke. This expectation, expressed as If smoke, then fire has become what we call
an inference. It might be held that this [conjunction of experiences], in the course of millennia, could conjure the mental
behaviour we call reason in other words, the practice of
inference out of mental behaviour which was not originally
rational Lewis writes on p.29. Thus experience produces

expectations: it will induce us to expect fire when we see smoke

just as it once induced us to expect that all swans would be
white (until we saw a black one), or that water would
always boil at 100C (until we tried a picnic
on a mountain). However, such expectations were not valid inferences for
they turned out to be false:
The assumption that things which
have been conjoined in the past will
always be conjoined in the future
is the guiding principle not of
rational but of animal behaviour.
Reason comes in precisely when
you make the inference Since
always conjoined, therefore
probably connected and go on
to attempt the discovery of the
connection. When you have discovered what smoke is, you may
then be able to replace the mere
expectation by a genuine inference.
Till this is done, reason recognises the
expectation as a mere expectation.
(Miracles, p.30)

We granted earlier that Lewiss primary argument is
logically valid, but doubted the truth of its second premise.
Isnt it possible, we asked, even if naturalism is true, that an
ability to think rationally could be the product of natural selection, or even of experience? Lewiss answer is firmly negative.
Evolution and/or experience equipped us to foresee causal connections between events, but not to see how things outside our
own minds logically must be. The power of reason is therefore not part of the system of nature.
Did Lewis succeed in producing possibly the first ever logically sound proof of the supernatural something beyond
Nature which operates whenever we reason? Almost by definition, a sound argument is one that persuades or convinces
you to believe that its conclusion is true. Are you persuaded?
It comes down to an essentially personal judgement.
If, as I believe, Lewis is right that human reason wasnt made
by either natural selection or experience, then is it a given, just
as the fundamental physical constants are givens? Both the
constants and reason seem to be distinct from nature. Like the
constants, reason is a prerequisite of science: it is its most basic
tool for without rational inference there could be no truth,
and so no science could be true. And reason is not only as necessary as the physical constants; it is also again like them universal and constant. It is certainly true that without the combination of the physical constants and human reason, life as we
now know it on this planet could not have come into being.

Stuart Greenstreet, a business manager and writer by trade, began

philosophy in the evenings at Birkbeck College, London, before graduating from the Open University, followed by further philosophy at the
University of Sussex.
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 31

Brief Lives

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Graeme Garrard observes the life of a paradoxical revolutionary hero
ccording to a popular legend the philosopher Immanuel
Kant was so punctual that his neighbours would set their
clocks by his daily constitutional. Allegedly, the only
time he deviated from this rigid pattern was when he received a
copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseaus treatise on education, Emile
(1762). The book so captivated him that he missed his afternoon walk for several days. Furthermore, the only piece of art
that the austere Kant kept in his home was a portrait of
Rousseau, which hung above his writing desk. He claimed that
Rousseau set me right by teaching him to honour mankind.
Another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was not
so impressed. At the end of the nineteenth century he
denounced Rousseau as a tarantula who poisoned Kant with his
moralising. This dim view of Rousseaus legacy cast a long
shadow over much of twentieth century ethics, particularly for
a generation of liberals such as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and
Jacob Talmon, for whom Rousseau was a proponent of totalitarian democracy. However, in the four decades leading up to
the 300th anniversary of his birth on the 28th June 2012,
Rousseaus reputation has waxed again, in conjunction with the
growing sophistication of Rousseau scholarship.
When Rousseau arrived in Paris in 1742 he was a poor,
unknown, unpublished, thirty-year-old Genevan with no job,
relatively little formal education (although well-read), whose
mother had died in childbirth, and whose watchmaker father
had abandoned him when he was ten years old. By the time
Rousseau died in 1778 he was a best-selling novelist, an
extremely successful opera composer, the author of numerous
books and essays on education, ethics, music, religion, language, political philosophy, political economy and even botany,
the rival of Voltaire, erstwhile friend of Diderot, dAlembert
and Hume (all of whom eventually denounced him as mad, as
did Nietzsche), and one of the most famous men in Europe.
Before the end of the century, Rousseaus body lay in the Panthon in Paris, immediately opposite his arch-nemesis Voltaire,
who died just over a month before him. It had been placed
there by the Jacobins to honour a father of the French Revolution. By the twentieth century, Rousseau had been blamed for
influencing if not actually causing romanticism, anarchism,
nationalism and even totalitarianism. He remains one of the
most important, influential, divisive and widely-read thinkers
in the history of ideas.

A Man of Paradoxes
Rousseau once described himself as a man of paradoxes,
which is not difficult to believe of someone who famously
claimed that it is sometimes necessary to force men to be free.
Other evidence concurs. He wrote an influential treatise on
education of the young, yet put all five of his children into a
foundling home as soon as they were born (where probably
most of them died). He claimed to have the greatest aversion
to revolutions, yet inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, such as Robespierre and Saint-Just, who hailed him as
their hero. Rousseau is commonly included among the leading
32 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

philosophes of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and contributed to the Encyclopdie, yet in his first major work he
praised ignorance and argued that the cultivation of the arts
and sciences is detrimental to morals. He is famous as a proponent of democracy, yet claimed in his main political work, The
Social Contract (1762) that the only place where democracy had
any realistic prospect in contemporary Europe was in remote
Corsica. Many of his most fervent and devoted admirers while
he was alive were women and aristocrats, yet he was deeply
misogynistic, and professed to dislike and disapprove of
wealthy grandees (I hate their rank, their hardness, their
prejudices, their pettiness, and all their vices). He was one of
the most admired and mesmerisingly eloquent writers of his
age, yet he had little formal education and married an illiterate
seamstress. He was a best-selling author and composer, yet he
wrote that books are good for nothing and admired ancient
Sparta, which tolerated neither writing nor music.
Rousseaus most successful opera, Le Devin du Village (The
Village Soothsayer), was a huge hit when it was premiered in
Paris in 1752, but it is almost never performed now. (Louis
XV loved it, and wanted to offer its composer a lifetime pension, but Rousseau had fled, fearing that he might wet himself
in the kings presence owing to a disease of his bladder.) And
Rousseaus writings on music, extolling the virtues of Italian
opera over French, are today known to only a few scholars.
While his sentimental epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Hlose
(1761), was probably the biggest best-seller of the eighteenth
century, it is now little read. Emile, which Rousseau described
as the best as well as the most important of the works I have
written, had a vast influence on the theory and practice of
education. However, its controversial assumptions and prescriptions have long since been superceded by rival pedagogies.
Yet Rousseaus relevance endures despite all the changes which
have made so much of what he did unfashionable to contemporary tastes. Many of his other works, above all in cultural
anthropology and political philosophy, are classics that continue to resonate very powerfully with readers.
One such example is Rousseaus Discourse on the Origins of
Inequality (1755). Although it was not awarded first prize by
the Academy of Dijon, for which it was written, it caused a sensation when it was published, and has had a huge and lasting
impact on natural and social science. It begins with an account
of man in a pre-social state of nature. This account, while
speculative and hypothetical, was enormously influential on
debates about human nature and the origins of social and political life at a time when there was very little empirical evidence
on these subjects and the gap between science and political
philosophy was far less broad than it is today. The Discourses
idyllic picture of the original human beings as innocent,
simple, happy, peaceful, isolated and benignly selfish prompted
Voltaire sarcastically to thank Rousseau for his new book
against the human species. The second part of the book
sketches the advent of society, and with it the emergence of an
aggressive form of selfishness (amour-propre) that has led to a

Brief Lives
Rousseau in a
solitary reverie

Hobbesian war of all against all dominated by inequality, injustice and exploitation.
The Social Contract
Rousseaus Social Contract, published 250 years ago in April
1762, sets out a solution to the dilemma of civilisation posed in
the Discourse. It was immediately condemned by the Paris Parlement, and placed on the Vaticans Index of Forbidden Books,
next to works by fellow philosophes such as Voltaire, Hume,
Diderot, Montesquieu, and dAlembert. (This did not prevent
Voltaire from declaring that the monster had brought all
these troubles on himself.) No one was surprised by any of
this, least of all Rousseau. But Rousseau was shocked and dismayed when the book was banned in his native Geneva. The
authorities ordered it burned and its author arrested if he ever
dared to set foot in the city again. This wounded Rousseau
deeply, since he had always been a proud citizen of Geneva
he signed his books (including The Social Contract) Citoyen de
Genve, and said to the Genovese that I took your constitution as my model. Rousseau blamed Voltaire, then resident in
Geneva, for whipping up opposition to him in an unholy
alliance with the religious bigots who dominated the city.
The Social Contract was even proscribed in relatively liberal,
tolerant Amsterdam. It seemed as though all of continental
Europe Catholics and Protestants, secularists and religious
fanatics, Jesuits and Jansenists, philosophes and anti-philosophes
had united against Jean-Jacques, who was forced to flee. He
even considered suicide. Rousseaus desperation was so great
that he actually moved to England, a nation he despised: I

have never liked England or the English, he states in

his Confessions (1770). In The Social Contract he had written that although England regards itself as free, it is
grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of its
Members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected,
slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. Even so, the
English gave Rousseau sanctuary when few others
would, for which he displayed his characteristic ingratitude, as his friend David Hume was to discover to his
amazement and disgust when Rousseau spurned the
offer of a pension from King George III, just as he had
done to Louis XV.
The Social Contract is Rousseaus most enduringly popular, widely-read and influential book. It ranks among
the great classics of Western political philosophy, alongside Platos Republic, Aristotles Politics, Machiavellis The
Prince, Hobbess Leviathan, Lockes Two Treatises of Government, Marxs Communist Manifesto and Mills On Liberty. It has been continuously in print for two and a half
centuries, inspiring generations of democrats and radicals as much as it has infuriated and provoked traditionalists and conservatives. It is a unique blend of ancient
and modern elements which is difficult to classify, and it
has vexed its interpreters since it was published.
In it Rousseau argues that both the monarchical absolutism of Frances then ancien rgime, and the enlightened despotism favoured by philosophes like Voltaire, are
inconsistent with the principles of political right (the
books subtitle) which he sets out in the book. Rousseau
started from the assumption made by many near-contemporary political thinkers, such as Hobbes and Locke, that political life is unnatural and must therefore be based on consent
and human artifice. In this view he was fully modern; but his
models of political consent were ancient Sparta and republican
Rome, because he held they understood best how to generate a
sense of public spirit, without which the general will essential
to a well-functioning polity cannot be formed. He was thus a
modern with the soul of an ancient who opposed liberalism with
his own unique form of modernity.
In the first line of the first chapter of The Social Contract
Rousseau famously declares that man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Yet contrary to the claims of many
writers (including Voltaire), it was never Rousseaus intention
to break the bonds of political life and return us to some idyllic
pre-political state of nature. Rather, he shows how he thinks
political bonds can be made legitimate meaning that sovereign and subject are no longer alienated from each other. Such
alienation is typical of despotic rule, where power is imposed
by might rather than by right. Rousseau gave the name citizen to those who help make the laws to which they are subject. By together making their own laws, each citizen obeys
no one but himself, and remains as free as before. This
Rousseau regarded as the only legitimate form of politics.
According to Rousseau, then, sovereignty should reside
with the people, in the form of the general will, which ought to
be the source of the laws legitimacy. The general will is not a
mere aggregation of the wills of selfish individuals (which
Rousseau called the will of all). Rather, the general will is
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 33

Brief Lives
rary conditions. He thought they were only applicable in relatively small, cohesive city-states of the
Mostly armless:
kind commonly found in ancient Greece; not the
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
large, sophisticated nation-states of modern
Europe. That is why it is very unlikely he would
have endorsed the French Revolutionary attempt
to implement his theories, had he lived to see it
even though he correctly predicted a coming age of
revolutions which would engulf Europe.
Whereas Thomas Jefferson believed that the government that governs least governs best, Rousseau
set out to legitimate strong government rather than
to limit it. Indeed, for Rousseau, to limit a legitimate government would be to limit political right
itself, which is contrary to justice. His objection to
Thomas Hobbes was not that Hobbes defended an
absolute sovereign, it is that he defended an illegitimate sovereign. Yet the American Founding Fathers
fundamentally mistrusted government, and therefore designed a political system that was deliberately
weak and limited by checks and balances. This is
why John Locke was a more important influence on
the American Revolution than Rousseau, who
inspired the French Revolutionaries.
The alienation Rousseau experienced from the
enlightened civilisation in which he was immersed
appears to have become complete in the last decade
of his life, when he sought to escape from the company of men entirely, in an apparent effort to preserve his own integrity in an age of utter corruption.
finally concluded that there is no hope of remeformed when citizens ask themselves what is in the common
dies and that the words fatherland and citizen should be
interest rather than what is good for them specifically as indieffaced from modern languages. He ended his days in total
viduals. However, Rousseau believed that such public-spiritresignation and pessimism. His last work, the unfinished
edness is wholly unnatural, since we are naturally selfish creaReveries of a Solitary Walker, was written in the two years before
tures. It must therefore be cultivated artificially, by means of a
he died, and suggests his conclusion that escape from civilisaset of institutions and practices whose purpose is to promote
tion into rustic isolation is the only real option for the man of
sentiments of sociability. The most notorious of these provirtue. His strong identification with Socrates is also best
posed institutions is what Rousseau calls the civil religion,
understood in terms of his self-conception as a good man
which makes each individual love his duty to the polity more
living in a wicked age, attacked and vilified by contemporaries
than to himself. Rousseau believed that Christianity is comblinded to his goodness by their own vice. In his late best-sellpletely unsuited to this role, since it preaches only servitude
ing masterpiece The Confessions, a cry from the heart written
and submission. In fact, he says that he knows nothing more
during the troubled and difficult years following the publicacontrary to the social spirit and favourable to tyranny than
tion of his Social Contract and Emile, Rousseau offers readers an
Christianity. Little wonder that The Social Contract was banned
irresistibly endearing and often shockingly frank self-portrait
both in Calvinist Geneva and in Catholic Paris.
which inspired an entire generation of romantic writers when
Another device that Rousseau says is necessary to induce
it was published posthumously.
naturally selfish individuals to think of the public good is what
It is a very grave mistake to dismiss Rousseaus ideas as the
he calls the legislator. Such rare individuals (he mentions
ravings of a lunatic, as so many of his enemies and detractors
Moses and Lycurgus as examples) invoke the divine to perhave done over the centuries. He was undoubtedly an eccentric
suade people to subordinate their particular interests to the
and often very difficult character, prone to bouts of paranoia
common interest, this being a precondition for the soveralthough he was a paranoiac with many powerful enemies who
eignty of the general will.
actively persecuted him. But the power and eloquence of his
writing have inspired many generations of the rebels, malconLegacies
tents, misfits and outsiders who share his profound disquiet
Despite his reputation as a nave idealist with both feet
about the place of the individual in the modern age.
planted firmly in the clouds, Rousseau was keenly aware of just
how unlikely it was that the political principles he prescribed
in The Social Contract would ever be adopted under contempoGraeme Garrard is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University.
34 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

Emily Bront
Food for Philosopher
Tim Madigan philosophizes poetically

ENOUGH of Thought, Philosopher;

Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened, in this chamber drear
While summers sun is beaming
Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain
Concludes thy musings once again?
Emily Bront (1818-1848), The Philosopher

s one who has spent many a summers day reading philosophy in chambers drear, I can empathize with
Emily Bronts poem. For several years now I have
made use of her poetry when teaching Introduction to Philosophy classes, in order to show that some of the deepest issues
in this discipline can best be expressed in non-prosaic terms.
One of the questions we consider in class is why there have
been so few female philosophers until fairly recent times. We
first read Platos arguments in The Republic as to why there
cannot be a truly just society until all citizens, both male and
female, are given equal opportunity to excel; then we study
Aristotles rejoinder that such a policy would be folly, since
women are by nature inferior to men, intellectually and physically. This point is reiterated later in the course by selections
from the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a vociferous
misogynist, who argued that women were really just big children, unable to understand abstract thought. (Ironically, his
mother was one of the first female novelists to publish under
her own name. Understandably, she did not get along very
well with her son.) To balance these arguments for womens
inherent inferiority, I then have the class read several poems
by Emily Bront, including The Old Stoic (below), I See
Around Me Tombstones Grey, and the above-quoted The
Philosopher. I ask the students to discuss their personal
interpretations of these works and how these might relate to
the views of Aristotle and Schopenhauer. Following this, I
have them read a selection from Virginia Woolfs seminal
essay, A Room of Ones Own. In this, Woolf, the daughter of
prominent Victorian philosopher Leslie Stephen, argued that
women had been systematically banned from all academic
fields and denied a proper education. She also made several
references to the Bront sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne,
and gave them credit for transcending their own limited horizons and for addressing issues previously thought to be offlimits to members of the fairer sex.
Most of my students (although not as many as I would
wish) are already familiar with Emily Bronts Wuthering
Heights from their high school English classes a familiarity
they do not have with the philosophers I introduce them to.
They also seem to be interested in the personal story of the
Bront sisters and their struggle to express their unique

portrait of
points-of-view. This bioEmily by
graphical information helps
them to better understand the Branwell
points made by Woolf, that
thoughtful writers need not
only time to reflect, but also
suitable space in which to do their
work conditions that until quite
recently were generally denied to
female members of society. In this sense,
Emily Bront represents the triumph of the
imagination over stultifying social conditions. She was obviously touched by the diverse philosophical movements sweeping England during her lifetime (which her father, the Reverend Patrick Bront, avidly discussed with her, his favored
child), and in her own way she commented upon these movements through her creative fiction (see below for a vivid example of her personal credo).
The American philosopher John Dewey once remarked that
when women philosophers became prominent, the very notion
of what constitutes philosophical inquiry would be greatly
expanded. By insisting on their right to be heard, and by
demonstrating their keen powers of observation, the Bront
sisters have had a powerful and enduring impact on the history
of thought. It is a pleasure for me to be able to introduce my
students to their writings, and in particular to Emilys poetry,
which ably demonstrates the folly of claiming that women
cannot understand or write metaphysical works.


by Emily Bront (1818-1848)
RICHES I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanishd with the morn:
And, if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!
Yea, as my swift days near their goal,
Tis all that I implore:
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Tim Madigan has been a member of the International Bront Society

for over 25 years, and admits a special affection for Emilys
misbegotten brother, Branwell.
May/June 2012G Philosophy Now 35

When inspiration strikes, dont bottle it up!
Write to me at: Philosophy Now
43a Jerningham Road London SE14 5NQ, U.K.
or email
Keep them short and keep them coming!
Dont Let Life Drag On
DEAR EDITOR: Surfing on my iPad last
week, a lucky wave carried me to Philosophy Now, a lode of gold for me to plunder, ponder and enjoy. Oh how we love
to tie ourselves up in linguistic tangles of
Humpty-Dumpty verbiage defining
what other words really mean in
attempts to express ideas!
I am impelled to offer my thoughts on
Nick Bostroms The Fable of the
Dragon-Tyrant in the last issue, where
the dragon represents death. Aged 91, I
havent long before boarding my own
dragon train. I am hoping my trip will
be easy, and not horribly prolonged. I
wish that booking a ticket on a high
speed Pullman Car were possible in that
country ideal for one who believes that
death is absolute and ends in utter oblivion, and therefore sees no point in
enduring an arduous journey. (Since
1993 I have been a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which has, in
these days of catchy sound-bites, been
renamed Dignity in Dying. They lobby
for legal rational alternative ways to deal
with our mortality.) But as the late marvellous Joyce Grenfell says, in the character of a professors wife giving tea and
a sympathetic ear to an anarchist college
student: Yes... but I DO worry about
who will look after the drains a nugget
of philosophy in a few words.
The moral of my Dragon-Tyrant
Fable is: good quality far outstrips quantity in life, but youth or physical good
health are no guarantee of comfort and
happiness. They of themselves do not
provide purpose, nor remove dullness,
drudgery, sometimes even degradation
unhappily experienced by probably the
large majority, with at best brief windows of pleasure and satisfaction, as we
scramble in the Darwinian battle of life.
DEAR EDITOR: Concerning Nick
Bostroms and Mary Midgleys somewhat opposing viewpoints on mortality:
36 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

it will not be sufficient that our descendants extend their lives indefinitely the
advance of technology must continue,
eventually to recreate the past and all the
people who previously perished.
If the materialists are correct, and my
self-awareness can be mapped to physical
phenomena in this universe, then it must
be possible to recreate this system artificially. It follows then that I not a
replica or simulacrum, but the actual me
could thus with sufficiently advanced
technology be restored to being. It is
interesting to note that if such technology were possible, then the End Times
stories of major religions the idea of
the resurrection of the dead and a Judgement Day would actually come to pass,
for we would not resurrect all previous
human beings, save perhaps just long
enough to tell some that for the evil they
committed in their lives, they will be
denied the opportunity for life extension.
(This also eliminates the urgency for
overcoming death Bostrom discusses.)
If all generations are given the option
of extending life, perhaps indefinitely,
then the issue of what to do with ones
life becomes universal. I suggest that a
new culture of extended living would
then emerge, and so some of the issues
Midgley discusses would become for the
most part moot. I can imagine any number of ways I would spend multiple lifetimes. We could evolve societies that
allow individuals to work in one career
for 25 years, say, then train for another
for five years. We could witness many
major historical events first-hand, perhaps recreate prehistoric times, and so
on. There would be no reason to be bored.
DEAR EDITOR: I read with interest Nick
Bostroms article The Fable of the
Dragon-Tyrant in Issue 89. But does he
not miss the main benefit of death, i.e.,
disposing of tyrants when all else fails?
Imagine if the dragon people had perfected a way to bring dead dragon-

tyrants back to life. Then immortality

would guarantee perpetual tyranny. History throws up a host of unsavoury characters only death was able to remove.
Epistolary Environmentalism
DEAR EDITOR: Re the Sustainability
theme in Issue 88: Popular language use
is not instructive for the philosopher,
but the debasement of meaning in such
terms as sustainability, environment,
and what is natural is disconcerting.
These terms are now tossed around
in commerce, the media and by politicians to desperately project meaningfulness. Ministers of Finance worldwide
use the term sustainability in almost
every speech (the Greek Minister of
Finance excepted). The word environment seems to refer in popular language
to a persons or communitys immediate
experienced physical surroundings:
urbanites see the environment as their
citified world, as if smog is a city thing,
not a sky thing. All sorts of products are
labelled natural although they are synthetically engineered to the hilt. Isnt
nature that which humanity has not
brought into existence, redesigned or
reconfigured, changed, or consumed?
Humanity itself is part of nature, since
humanitys make-up is partly the result
of processes humanity did not create.
Some decades back, at the beginning
of the activist environmental movement,
the term sustainability was employed to
lead us to a deeply philosophical question:
Is modern humanity able to maintain a
balanced relationship with nature, all the
while meeting its basic needs to produce
and consume; or are humanitys wild consumption levels, unregulated production
methods and resource exhaustion leading
to a profound imbalance that imperils
future generations? We had to think
about the state of nature, humanitys
place in it, and the (im)morality of
human consumption patterns.
Humanity dwells in and is part of

nature, yet such is humanitys capability
to think and create, that this can alter our
relationship with nature. We also seem
on the way to altering human nature. The
common use of the term sustainability
cannot sustain such lines of thought. The
debased current meaning seems to evoke
this line of thinking only: Can we protect
the status quo of material wealth and comfort and continue to spend so much, consume so much, etc? No wonder politicians speechwriters everywhere junk
their speeches with such terms.
I keep wondering why the discipline
philosophy of nature is on the ropes.
Could it be that popular language use is
diverting philosophers reflection from
the substance of the matter?
DEAR EDITOR: In Three Challenges For
Environmental Philosophy, in Issue 88,
Jim Moran makes reference to Albert
Schweitzers doctrine of Reverence for
Life. I have some doubt as to whether
Schweitzer would refer to his foundational ethic as a doctrine, since it was
meant as a broad guide to behaviour
rather than as a formal principle. The
ethic is also rather vapid unless understood in relation to Schweitzers worldview, which saw nature as a stark arena of
competition and violence and without
revelation as to its ultimate meaning, at
least in human terms. Allied to this
weltanschauung is the idea of the will-tolive as being universal in all living things,
enabling human beings to find common
ground with other species. Schweitzers
project encapsulated in the aphorism
Reverence for Life is at one level practical, in terms of kindness to all life, and at
another mystical, in its being symbolic of
deference to and sharing in the common
experience of life. It is a shame that this
great thinker is not better known in our
time, for his philosophy is sorely needed.
Aping Tallis
DEAR EDITOR: Daryn Greens review in
PN 88 of Aping Mankind by Raymond
Tallis reminded me of the ancient Greek
philosophers obsession with finding out
what stuff is made of, even though they
didnt have the tools to find out. Democritus secured his place in history by
nailing his name to his atomic theory,
but that was a fluke, a lucky guess. For
knowledge we had to wait until science

demonstrated that stuff really is made of

atoms. Philosophers had always fallen
out about the shape and size of the universe too until science allowed us to
measure it, date it, and move the Earth
from the centre of it. Now philosophers
ponder the relationship between brain
and consciousness, but with the same
problem the lack of the tools to understand it. Science is the best (and in fact
the only) tool we have to try and understand consciousness, but we have to be
patient; were not there yet.
Its ironic that in the same issue there
were several articles about the damage
humans are causing to ecosystems. As it
is the ecology that keeps us alive on this
planet, we need to find a way of existing
that does not damage it. The globalised,
growth-obsessed capitalism of corporatecontrolled democracy is clearly not it.
Surely it is the task of philosophers to
come up with a better one, instead of
wasting time and energy pondering
problems for which only science can provide answers eventually.
DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis (A Conversation with my Neighbour, Issue 88)
misunderstands the classical animal
rights position, which does not need to
assert that non-human animals are of
equal value to human animals. Judging
relative value is in fact a mugs game,
because there are no objective criteria to
help us: rather, it depends who you ask,
person A or person B; or person A or
dog B. But the critical question is why
someone of greater moral value (assuming this could be established) is morally
permitted to deliberately cause suffering
to those he or she considers of less value.
Professor Tallis fails to address this fundamental issue. Instead, he chooses to
draw his circle of ethical concern around
his own species, and justifies the cruel
exploitation of those falling outside the
circle, at least in some circumstances,
such as medical research. Tempting, no
doubt; but is it consistent with principle?
Suffering lies at the core of ethics
we have ethical codes only because others may be adversely affected by our
behaviour (or, indeed, positively). Prof
Tallis does not dispute that animals,
including lab animals, are sentient. So
why is it permissible to cause suffering to
a lab animal, non-consensually and for
someone elses benefit, when (as he says,

and we would all agree) it is impermissible, in fact repulsive, for monsters like
Mengele to do the same to a person?
The problem is that if I choose to
draw my ethical circle with a certain
diameter, uninfluenced by a possible victims capacity to suffer, what answer do I
have for someone who chooses to draw
their circle even smaller around their
race, gender, religion, sexuality, ablebodiedness, inner-city gang membership,
even? As Bentham famously wrote: The
question is not Can they reason? nor Can
they talk? but Can they suffer? He said
that about animals, but it could equally
have been about people with advanced
dementia. Including all humans in our
ethical ambit is logical because we have
shared interests; but including only
humans is not self-evidently correct. It
needs justification based on ethical
principle, not on self-interest, or on mere
solidarity with ones own. Should we
teach our children that causing pain, even
great pain, to others of perceived lesser
value can be acceptable if our group
stands to benefit in other words, that
might is right? If so, where do we draw
the line? And how does this fit into traditional ethical frameworks, under which
might is assuredly not right? Armed with
the developed consciousness which Professor Tallis so champions, one would
hope that humankind can do better, both
ethically and scientifically.
Meaningful, Meaningful,
Everything Is Meaningful
DEAR EDITOR: Steven Andersons article,
The Meaning of Meaning (Issue 88),
was excellent. Yet I believe there is even
more to say than Anderson wrote of.
The question is: Is there is an objective meaning to existence which can be
revealed through logical analysis? I occasionally use freedom and happiness as
being synonymous with meaning. So, is
meaning (happiness) a function of logic?
As Kant once said, Happiness is an
ideal, not of reason, but of imagination.
There is no one objectively correct
meaning. Consequently, I must proceed
with relativism. Dr Andersons students
presupposed that meaning must refer to
existence as a whole. The logical conclusion was then that a divine source gives
meaning to the world. But I will use two
characters, David and Jake, to demonstrate a sense of meaning that goes
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 37

beyond this impasse of cold logic.
David is a linguistic philosopher who
feels that meaning is only a concept.
He cannot get past the word. But Daves
friend Jake does not believe that. However, Jakes situation is not good. He
does not have a steady job: hes a downand-out writer who makes some money
by translating novels into English for a
French writer. He doesnt make commitments to women, and is always trying
to find places to live rent-free. He glides
through life in a fantasy world. Hes lazy
yet feels that his lack of discipline and
his neglect of his talents are a real source
of freedom, and hence meaning. However, as Jake loses his bearings, he begins
to see that his life lacks meaning, that is,
authentic happiness. Thus a crack forms
in his armor a crack large enough to
let in a few shafts of light. Jake begins to
see that hes made some bad assumptions about his activities; but he still has
enough insight to disagree with Dave
that meaning is only an idea.
Jakes true freedom is hard won. Here
gaining meaning involves a humbling
knowledge of ourselves. When he finds
this, unlike Dave, Jake absolutely knows
that meaning is more than just a word.
Thus Dr Anderson has not fully
answered to my satisfaction the real
problem with finding meaning; but I feel
that some shafts of light have been
encountered. Meaning evidently
involves both the use of analysis, such as
Dr Anderson employed, and the inner
experience. If we could only fuse the two
aspects, then perhaps goodness and freedom could become twin aspects of
meaning, all moving on the same path.
DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed Stephen
Andersons discussion of the Meaning
of Meaning in Issue 88. But he appears
to conclude that there are only two possibilities, which are polarised, which is a
bit like saying there are only two possibilities concerning consciousness: materialism or dualism. The polarised views
are that there is either no meaning to
existence, or meaning requires a supreme
being. The problem is that the only purpose this supreme being serves in the
argument is to give us meaning. In other
words, the argument is a bit circular.
However, the fact that the universe
gave birth to life and consciousness,
even if only on one lonely planet, makes
38 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

the idea of a meaningless universe meaningless. We give the universe meaning

just by existing; and if there is something
grander in the scheme of things, then we
fulfill it by living our lives rather than by
contemplating it. In other words, if there
is a greater meaning, its not ours to know.
History Is A Thing Of The Past
DEAR EDITOR: I confess to being baffled
by Ben Adams article on history in Issue
88. What point is he trying to make? On
the one hand he appears to dismiss those
who attempt to assign grand narratives to
history and suggests that it must be concerned with the study of everyday people;
on the other he says that comprehensiveness must replace... localisation. Im
not sure these goals are compatible.
Much of the article appears to be an
attack on the notion of historical objectivity. However, I am not aware that many
historians today would pretend that history can ever be objective: that idea pretty
much went out of the window with
orthodox Marxism. Instead, historians
accept that all conclusions are provisional.
Historians are also intensely partisan,
and, like philosophers, frequently engage
in quite vituperative disputes. The only
historian Ben Adams actually quotes,
A.J.P.Taylor, is a case in point. His The
Origins Of The Second World War (1961)
was highly controversial. Im not sure
how many history books Ben Adams has
read recently, but they are often far from
dispassionate: A Peoples Tragedy by
Orlando Figes (1996), The Third Reich by
Michael Burleigh (2000), or White Heat
by Dominic Sandbrook (2006), are all
examples of accessible history written by
professional historians who are passionate
about their subject matter and not afraid
to make their views known.
The section entitled A Brief History
Of History is misleadingly named. It says
nothing about the schools of history that
have often fought each other over the past
300 years or so. He debunks the Great
Man (and Woman) approach to history
as though that were an innovation. In fact,
this approach has been under attack for
over a hundred years. For instance, the
Annales School of History, which is very
much focused on history from below,
has been thriving for decades. Theodore
Zeldins monumental five volume History
of France from 1848-1945 is an excellent (if
sometimes a little stodgy) example of this.

But the idea that each individuals

actions, omissions, and everyday life... [is]
worthy of study in its own right would
make the historians job impossible. Manifestly, it cannot be done. I assume this is
a mere rhetorical flourish, aimed at promoting the Annales approach; but as I
have already pointed out, this idea is
nothing new. History from below is alive
and well (I recommend the excellent
Britain After Rome by Robin Fleming
(2010) as a recent example), but to argue
that we are all equally important or influential to the flow of history appears to me
a pretty unsustainable position.
Having previously been dismissive of
the genre, the eminent historian Ian
Kershaw surprised himself by writing a
two volume biography of Hitler. In the
introduction to the first volume (1998)
he reflects: No attempt to produce a
comprehensive understanding of the
phenomenon of Nazism without doing
justice to the Hitler factor can hope to
succeed. But such an interpretation must
not only take full account of Hitlers ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events; it
must at the same time locate these within
the social forces and political structures
which permitted, shaped, and promoted
the growth of a system that came
increasingly to hinge on personalized,
absolute power with the disastrous effects
that flowed from it. [my italics] This
appears to me a sound historical position,
and not entirely objective!
No Rush To Patent
How to use time travel for space travel:
A) Build a time machine.
B) Travel far enough into the future for
the target planet, star, etc to have moved
to your location in space.
C) Of course, the target will be much
older now. Furthermore, creating a time
machine is probably more difficult than
making an interstellar spaceship.
Thank you to everyone who wrote in
to tell us that Bertrand Russell was
brought up in Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park, not Pembroke House,
Regents Park, as was wrongly stated
in last issues Brief Life.

Question of the Month


How Does Language Work?

The following answers to the question of linguistic meaning each win a random book
The human vocal tract can make a wide range of sounds,
which allows us to move beyond the grunts and shrieks of our
primate cousins, at least some of the time. As many as fifty
regions in the human brain are involved in language, controlling the complex movements needed to produce speech, translating vibrations in the air into neural activity in the brain to
hear, and manipulating the symbols that make up the thoughts
and ideas of our minds to reason. These adaptations of the
individual are all necessary for full language use, but language
isnt much use to a solitary individual, and would never have
arisen were we not a social species.
Sounds alone, of course, are not enough to create meaning,
since a non-English speaker wont understand the word cat
although they hear the sound. Language works by attaching a
symbol e.g. cat to the idea of a cat, which itself is produced by
the reality to which it refers (ie, a cat). When language doesnt
work, we can sometimes revert to pointing say, at a cat. But
this also requires shared intentionality, ie, a common recognition that the pointing is about something. This perhaps tells us
something about the origins of language, and how language
works at a very basic level. The small bands of hunter-gatherers who first developed language would have first pointed to
animals and objects in their environment. But given that making physical movements in the line of sight of a predator is
dangerous, its far better to represent that action with a sound
that can be whispered, like Lion!
Fish swim, birds fly, and people talk. How do we display this
talent for language? As Noam Chomsky argued, for language to
work, there must be an innate biological linguistic capacity. We
are born with a universal grammar in our brains, which is the
initial condition through which the grammars of specific languages arise, and which allows us to learn particular languages.
This is the prime mover for all language. There are many
other essential components in how language works: phonetics,
morphology, etymology, pragmatics, graphology, lexicography
and semiotics, to name but a few. I will look at what I consider
to be the two most essential elements, philosophically speaking.
Firstly, syntax, which encompasses the structure or form of a language its grammar, rules of language and what generally goes
to make up a well-formed sentence. Sounds not following the
syntactical rules for structuring sentences are not words, for
they follow no pattern which can allow us to derive any significance from them. However, if, as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued,
syntax is simply pure logic logic being the foundation of
meaning in any language and is essential to language, then by
itself syntax is senseless or meaningless (sinnlos). For instance,
saying all bachelors are bachelors doesnt explain anything,
even if it does display logical form (its a tautology). This also
applies to contradictions, which are meaningless.
Syntax defines the structure upon which meaning is built.

The other side of that coin is semantics the meaning thats

understood. The question is, how is this meaning created? I
would argue that it is derived within the contexts of shared
activities or public actions, not just in the minds of individuals.
When I speak I am not attaching a verbal sound as a label to
something going on in my mind. Rather, I am using a verbal
sound which has a function in communication and has a place
in public behaviour. There is no private meaning. Meaning
occurs within social activities, philosophy itself being one of
those activities, with its own shared language; and its problems
regarding meaning are the result of a misuse of language. But
thats a whole other issue.
We could take the word fork, for example, and learn to say
it and spell it in a variety of foreign languages. We could even
make up our own word. However, regardless of the variety of
identifying signs we could use, our understanding of the word
remains. We quickly realise that simply identifying and naming is not how language works. How then, when learning a
language, is it that we understand what the words mean?
Wittgenstein advocated the idea that an account of the
meaning of a word cannot be given without looking at the part
the word plays in our lives and speech behaviour. In what is
now famously known as his Private Language Argument,
Wittgenstein attacks the idea that meaning is a mental process.
He uses the following example: if I attach the word S to a (private) sensation, how do I know Im using the word S correctly
next time I want to refer to the sensation, since I would already
have to know the meaning of S to check my use of that word?
Thus, how could I know my use of a word is correct without
having the external standard of a language community who are
already using the word in an established, common way? Or, if I
say toe when I mean thumb you can correct me, but I cannot
correct myself. Language therefore cannot work solely in the
private arena, as there is no criterion of practice or rule against
which to check the private use of language. Thus, although it is
absurd to suppose we could experience each others feelings, we
can only understand what is meant when someone refers to
being happy through the public criteria for happiness, such as
smiling broadly while acting exhuberently. People identify
when someone is happy due to the communal use of the word
within the context of our lives and the behavioural manifestation of happiness. In the words of Sir Anthony Kenny, Language is not my language, it is our language.
Wtihuot lnagugae it wuold be ipmsosilbe to coodrnitae or
fnutcoin as a scoeity. But how deos lnagugae wrok?
Cmouminaciton ivnloevs at laest two poelpe smooene to
sepak and smooene to lsietn (tihs is one of the mian raeosns
mnay piholoshpres bleieve taht lnagugae dsirpvoes slopsiism
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 39

the bleeif taht you are the olny mnid and the etnrie uinevsre,
and eevyrhtnig in it is a fgiemnt of yuor iamignitaoin.)
The way we laern lnagugae has been udner dbetae for cneutires. Smoe agrue we hvae an inntae konlwdege of lnagugae
ptaetnrs. One of the key peieces of eivedcne for tihs iade is taht
cihdlern, wehn laenrnig to sepak, use wrods or prhsaes scuh as
I did-ed it as oppsoed to Ive done it. If tehre is no inntae
konewelgde of lnagugae and we laern lnagugae pulyre trhuogh
epxrinece, tihs sguegtss taht tehy hvae haerd lnagugae uesd in
taht way bferoe, wihch celraly isnt ture.
Wtigtnetsien condisread the cnoecpt of a piravte lnagugae: a
lnagugae olny you can udnretsnad. Hwoveer, its esay to ciriticse
taht cnoecpt, as weve arlaedy siad taht for a lnagugae to fnutcoin as a lnauagge, tehre has to be an itnrecaiton bteewen at
laest two poelpe one to tlak, one to lsietn and addtinolaly an
udnretsnaidng. If lnagugae wree to ohtres jsut a sreeis of maeinlgses nioess or lteetrs, cmouminaciton wuold be ipmsoislbe.
The basic answer is that language works if the people
engaged are members of the same interpretive community or
network. But it is useful to ask: When does language not work?
Two people using the same language can misunderstand one
another. Indeed, Person A and Person B may not even grasp
the fact they do not fully understand one another. But if it
becomes obvious to them, then A may think that B is using
words (such as God) incorrectly. A may say that B is making a
semantic mistake. A neo-pragmatist linguist influenced by
C.S. Peirce might correct A, and say that B is making a pragmatic mistake. The linguist will argue that every sign requires
both an interpretive community (the interpretant) and an operational definition of the meaning and applicability of that sign
(the representant). Hence, there is a triadic (three-way) relationship between a sign, its semantics (its commonly understood
meaning) and its pragmatics (the ways in which people use the
sign). This triad can then constitute a dialectical progression,
where what was once the interpretant may become the representant, and so forth.
Language works by virtue of the relationships between it, us,
our minds, and the world. The philosophies of the later
Wittgenstein and of John Searle underpin this idea. We invest
language with meaning by using the various representational
functions of words strung together through the application of
grammar, punctuation and syntax. As for the meaning of representation, it is helpful to borrow from the vocabulary of semiotics, the science of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of
semiotics, points out that a signifier, say the word horse, when
used, brings to mind the concept horse the signified. The
horse itself, the thing that can kick you, is the referent.
However, within language there are many occasions when
there is no referent: for instance, with abstract nouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. So with conspicuous,
before, in, and, but, and cheers!, etc, we cannot point to
what the words mean (as we may think we can with a horse in
the world) although we typically do give example of a words
use, as tools with particular functions in the language.
The separation of signifier, signified and referent may be misleading. This is brought out where referents are absent. Take
abstract words such as, contrary and mitigation. There is noth40 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

ing to point to but more importantly, we cannot grasp their

meaning without the word. Try thinking of the meaning of contested without bringing the word itself to mind. With such
abstractions, meanings and the words standing for them fuse. So
in an important sense, language use is virtually inseparable from
what we intend to convey signifiers co-exist with their signifieds and their referents. This is apparent when we try to learn a
word: we use the word fluently when meaning and word appear
no longer separate, but rather to coalesce.
In addressing the question, I want to extend it to How does
language work in the human mind? Outside that context, language is fairly straightforward: its portraying information via
symbols called words, and combining them in structures via
grammatical rules. Any system doing these things is a language.
A computer does this, producing linguistic output: but it cannot
understand it the way a human mind does (thus the Turing test
for distinguishing between the two). That difference is the key
to this difficult question.
The difficulty is elucidated by our wondering what it might be
like to think without language, and sometimes struggling to put
thoughts into words. What, exactly, is the thing (thought, perception, idea, feeling) that precedes its own linguistic expression?
A computer represents information by encoding it using a
binary system of ones and zeroes. Our brains must do something roughly analogous using neurons, although we havent yet
cracked the code. And there are important differences between
brains and computers. Neurons dont only function like a computers simple one/zero logic gates: many respond only to specific stimuli or sensory inputs. But the biggest difference (and
why computers fail the Turing test) is that computers lack a self
which could be called a meta-program to make sense of linguistic output. Explaining how such consciousness works is of
course a deep problem; but we do experience it as a system that
understands and synthesizes, in a global way, the sum total of
the relevant neuronal encodings, processing, and representations. That self operates when putting thoughts into words.
Words are representations of objects or concepts. A thought
of heroism may arise in the brain and precede naming it; yet
thinking the word heroism evokes a panoply of connotations.
Thus words, as labels, act like keys or triggers for the penumbra
of mental associations each word entails. Hence we understand
words not merely in terms of their definitions, nor sentences
merely through literal meaning, but in a wide context bringing
into play the entire mind, with all its personal history, memories, and psychology. Putting it differently, theres a little
homunculus in your brain that understands thoughts employing language, and passes that understanding along to you.
The words of which language is composed have dictionary
or definitional meanings. For a computer these meanings are
irritatingly precise, and a computer will respond exactly as commanded. But most words incorporate nuances of meaning and
so may be understood by a human audience in a number of ways
according to the experience of the user and the context.
The key to language lies in the agencies using language. Try
thinking of yourself and others as musical instruments. Language is the tool by which the instruments are tuned to each
other. The particular language code is immaterial; language
How Does Language Work?

works through its effect on the attuned audience. Language

works best when a speaker is able to find the tunes the audience
can recognize, including for communication with other species.
Each linguistic exchange generates thought in the listener,
which most likely will not be identical with the thought of the
speaker. The listener will assemble her understanding still using
words, and often with new insight. The response will show how
well the audience understood, and further modify the thinking
of the speaker. Successive exchanges may be needed to achieve
perfect understanding between the parties. Over a lifetime,
each one of us becomes attuned to the general intention of a
steadily increasing vocabulary, and will modify our own. So language works by successively re-tuning understanding between
participants. Sadly, it works only in part.
Schopenhauer divided our mental representations into the
intuitive the whole of sensual experience and the abstract
concepts facilitated by reason. Reason has speech as its first
product and necessary instrument and its most important
achievements are attained through language, which is only
indirectly related to perception, via concepts. Concepts reside
in what neuroscientist Endel Tulving calls semantic memory
which connects ideas to objects. E.O. Wilson sees concepts as
units of human culture, describing a concept as a node of
semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity (Consilience, p.148, 1998). He reminds us that even if our lexical
communication were removed, wed still have a rich paralanguage that communicates... basic needs: blushing facial
expressions postures our primate heritage. Wilson also
reminds us that language conveying information constructs culture, and that some think that this culture has acquired emergent properties no longer connected to the genetic and psychological processes that initiated it. Individual minds could then
be seen as building blocks which can generate regularities in a
functioning language environment. Configurations of these
units then become meaning generators at a higher scale of
organization, that is, on a cultural level.
Sentences produce different kinds of speech acts: consisting
for example in assertions and promises, respectively expressing
the states of belief and intention. And all speech acts have conditions of satisfaction. For example, the expression of a valid
belief is satisfied by its being true, and the making of a valid
promise is satisfied by its fulfillment. Speakers may also learn
metacognitive skills, distinguishing, for instance, between
meanings of the same sentence across differing contexts. The
meaning of indexical words such as I is not retained across
contexts, for instance.
It has been argued that proper names are used to pick out a
specific individual and lack any descriptive aspect. Conventions
also apply to syntax: we have selected the sentence as the basic
unit of communication, and use the order of its words to convey its meaning while allowing individual words to retain theirs
as demonstrated by the distinction between The dog chased
the fox and The fox chased the dog. Apart from understanding a sentences references, a listener must also understand a
speakers purpose in using that sentence assertive, promissory,
or otherwise which is usually revealed by its syntax.
Finally, whether they know it or not, speakers are committed
How Does Language Work?

to the condition of satisfaction of their utterances. For instance,

those expressing beliefs are committed to their truth, and those
making promises to their fulfillment. If we make a promise it is
not to be easily discounted, because in making it we are simultaneously obliging ourselves to ensure that it is kept.


Linguistic meaning operates through a framework erected by

the synthesis of grammatically-well-formed elements. A basic
aspect is a common lexicon, in which the verbal symbols or
tokens which we bestow upon objects and ideas are recorded.
Meaning is often successfully aided by higher semantic devices,
including irony, the implying of the opposite of what is meant in
order to emphasise the true; another device is metaphor, when
phrases are used to refer to other ideas of which they are images.
And where would the world of literature be without the simile?
Samuel Taylor Coleridges description in The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner of a becalmed ship as like a painted ship upon a painted
ocean leaves no doubt as to the intended meaning.
The art world use other languages. An outstanding example
of this is music, where tonality, harmony, melody and rhythm
contrive to be meaningful to a receptive ear. Some attempts are
made to account for such meanings verbally, but sometimes it is
more appropriate to bear in mind the closing line of Wittgensteins Tractatus: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darber muss
man schweigen. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must
be silent.)
Language is existence manifest. It is the expression of an
entity both inwardly and outwardly. For instance, when we see
an object in our environment, our awareness of the object
results from our brain converting sensory data into electrical
impulses which our mind recognises as an image. This image,
or subsequent thoughts provoked by the image (which is internal language) can be communicated to others, with more or
less distortion, by using the language of the senses sight,
sound, touch, smell and taste.
Where there is consciousness, there is language. As far as
animals use language, they are also conscious. Despite our differences, both humans and animals read and respond to the
messages created in their brains in a language appropriate to
their desires and capacities. The degree of consciousness, and
therefore the complexity of internal language, varies, as does
the ability to project this externally.
Rocks are another matter. Rocks are commonly held to be
beyond consciousness and language. Caution, however, is warranted. For instance, a rock is perceived to be green when it
reflects that colour back to the observer. In doing this, the rock
communicates without being alive. Language then operates on
both sides of the life-death divide.
The next question of the month is: Whats The Most
Important Question, and Why? The prize is a surprise
philosophy book. Justify your question in less than 400
words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked
Question of the Month, and must be received by 20th
August. Submissions must include physical address to have
a chance of getting a book. Submission implies permission
to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 41


This issue we look at the intersection of nature and

human behaviour. Bill Meacham finds Sam Harriss book
intriguing but frustrating, and Greg Linster is left howling
at Mark Rowlands memoir of his pet wolf.

The Moral Landscape:

How Science Can
Determine Human
Values, by Sam Harris
IN THIS book, Sam Harris,
a noted New Atheist, asks
us to consider two lives:
Life A: Imagine that you are an illiterate
and homeless African woman whose husband has disappeared. You have just seen
your seven-year-old daughter raped and
murdered at the hands of drug-crazed soldiers, and now youre fearing for your life.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual
predicament for you. From the moment
you were born, your life has been marred
by cruelty and violence.
Life B: Imagine that you are a respected
professional in a wealthy country, married
to a loving, intelligent and charismatic
mate. Your employment is intellectually
stimulating and pays you very well. For
decades your wealth and social connections
have allowed you immense personal satisfaction from meaningful work which makes
a real difference in the world. You and your
closest family will live long, prosperous
lives, virtually untouched by crime, sudden
bereavements, and other major misfortunes.

Which is the better life? We would all

no doubt say Life B. Harris takes this as

evidence that there is an objective way to

determine what is morally good and bad.
In fact, as the subtitle of the book indicates,
he claims that scientific inquiry can tell us
what we should and should not value.
Harris feels he can say this because he
thinks that the proper meaning of value
with respect to human life that is to say,
the proper meaning of morality is that
which leads to human flourishing, which
means, living a satisfying life. Once he has
made that move, the rest of his argument is
straightforward and cogent: careful observation of what in fact fulfils people is not a
matter of philosophical or religious debate,
it is a matter of scientific inquiry. We can
tell, objectively, what leads to happiness
and what leads to misery. Facilitating good
lives is what morality is about, says Harris,
and thats why science can tell us what we
should value and what we should not. As
Harris says:
human well-being entirely depends on events in
the world and on states of the human brain.
Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be
known about it. (p.2) Once we see that a concern
for well-being (defined as deeply and as inclusively
as possible) is the only intelligible basis for morality and values, we will see that there must be a science of morality... As we come to understand how
human beings can best collaborate and thrive in
this world, science can help us find a path leading

42 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

away from the lowest depths of misery and toward

the heights of happiness for the greatest number of
people. (p.28)

There may be problems about the

details, but the overall goal of peaks of
happiness is quite achievable, says Harris.
Harriss metaphor of a moral landscape
is instructive. By moral landscape, he
means the conceptual space of all possible
experience. The peaks represent the
heights of well-being, and the valleys the
worst suffering. Different cultures and ethical practices are different ways of moving
across this landscape they can lead either
up or down, and their effects are empirically knowable. Harris notes that there is
no single best way for people to live: there
are many peaks in the moral landscape, not
just one. Morality is here like food. There
is no one best food to eat, but there is still
an objective difference between poison and
tasty, nutritious cuisine. Similarly, there is
no one best way to live; but there is an
objective, specifiable difference between
circumstances, actions and policies that
lead to lives like Life A, and those that lead
to lives such as Life B. If we want a life like
B, and if we want that life for others too,
then we should pay attention to what scientific inquiry tells us about how to get
there, and take action accordingly.
It is a striking and plausible vision. But
Book Reviews

it depends, as I said, on the initial move,
which defines moral as that which concerns well-being (and not just human wellbeing, but that of all conscious creatures:
maximizing the well-being of conscious
creatures... [is] the only thing we can reasonably value (p.11)). To say that morality
is exclusively concerned with well-being is
a strong claim, and one which Harris does
not quite pull off.
The Well-Being of the Argument
Harris certainly recognizes that it is an
issue. His argument goes like this:
1) Talk about value makes sense only for
conscious creatures.
2) Well-being is all that we can intelligibly
3) Hence the only sense the concept of
value has, is the well-being of conscious
creatures, and that is what morality should
be concerned with.
He starts by claiming that consciousness
is the only intelligible domain of value. But
he does not so much argue for this proposition as deny its contrary: I invite you to try
to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or
potential) experience of conscious beings.
(p.12) Whatever such a source would be, it
would by definition have no effect on the
experience of any creature, and hence would
be the least interesting thing in the universe.
This first premise is problematic, but the
problems are not fatal for his argument.
Are plants conscious creatures? No? But
adequate sunlight, water and nutrients are
good for plants, and hence could be consid-

Book Reviews

ered sources of value for the plants. How

about amoebas? Adequate nutrients and
water of a certain salinity are good for
amoebas, that is to say, of value for amoebas. If plants or amoebas are not conscious,
yet can still be subject to things of value to
them, then Harriss first argument fails.
(We could be generous here and say that
conscious means something like able to
take into account ones surroundings. This
would encompass plant life. But Harris
does not say this.)
Harris then asserts, the concept of
well-being captures all that we can intelligibly value. And morality... really relates to
the intentions and behaviors that affect the
well-being of conscious creatures. (pp.1213). Again, he does not so much argue for
this proposition as deny and disparage its
contraries. For example, to someone who
says that it is important to follow Gods law
for its own sake, Harris says they are really
acting out of concern for the consequences
to themselves, either in this life or another.
To someone who says it is important to act
according to duty, fairness, justice, or some
other moral principle, Harris says that this
can be so only because of the consequences
of doing so. But he gives little evidence for
these assertions, and in fact admits that he is
defining his terms to mean this: At bottom,
this is purely a semantic point: I am claiming that whatever answer a person gives to
the question Why is religion important?
can be framed in terms of a concern about
someones well-being (whether misplaced
or not). (p.199) or to say that we ought to
treat children with kindness seems identical
to saying that everyone will tend to be
better off if we do. (p.38)

Off the Map

There is a serious meta-ethical issue
here which Harris does not adequately
address. Throughout the history of philosophy there have been two competing
domains of discourse regarding ethics,
which have been called the Right and the
Good. (See for example Abraham Edel,
Right and Good, Dictionary of the History
of Ideas, at,
archived at
The Right pertains to duty and obligation
the obligation to obey moral rules which
are taken to be applicable universally and
independent of ones own preferences. The
Good pertains to benefits and harms that
is, to the consequences of actions, which may
be good or bad for the moral agent or
others. Harris is solidly in the Goodness
camp, and he does an admirable job of
spelling out the implications of that position, particularly the value of a careful, disciplined, objective examination of reality, in
short, of science, for determining what is
good and bad, beneficial and detrimental,
for humans and other conscious creatures.
But he only asserts that Goodness trumps
Rightness that it makes more sense or is
more cogent to speak of morality in terms
of benefits and harms than to speak of it in
terms of duty and obligation he does not
demonstrate his thesis.
To his credit, Harris does address the
use of the terms right and wrong. By
right he means factually correct or true,
and by wrong he means the opposite: just
as it is possible for individuals and groups
to be wrong about how best to maintain
their physical health, it is possible for them
to be wrong about how to maximize their
personal and social well-being. (p.62)
Thus, claims about what is good for
humans and other conscious creatures can
be right or wrong in the sense of being true
or false.
So far, so good; but then Harris says that
there are right and wrong ways to move
from our current position on the moral
landscape toward one peak or the other...
(p.74) Now the term right usually connotes one-and-only: there is one right
answer to the question What is 37 times
42?, and many wrong ones. To say that
there are right ways (plural) to move could
connote several morally-acceptable methods to get to a happiness peak, but this does
not fit the usual concept of rightness. No
doubt what Harris really means is that
there are more and less workable methods
for moving up the landscape to a peak of
May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 43

A more problematic passage is: physicians have a moral obligation to handle
medical statistics in ways that minimize
unconscious bias (p.143). How does he
get from the observable fact that minimizing bias has good effects, to saying the we
have a moral obligation to do so? Unless we
radically redefine what we mean by obligation, we are not morally obliged to minimize harm on Harriss view. Instead, we
are merely better advised to do so. Harris
wants to redefine the concept of moral
obligation in terms of probable benefits
and harms, but he does not make the argument for doing so clearly enough.
It is certainly easy to confuse the
notions of Right and Good because both
are used to evaluate, recommend, command or prohibit policies or courses of
action. Despite his best efforts, Harris here
falls into that confusion and strays from
the paradigm in which his argument makes
the most sense the Goodness paradigm.
Even within the Goodness paradigm, he
does not successfully make the move he
wants to make to the value of a concern,
not just for ones own self, or for all
humans, but for conscious beings generally.
It is clear that a thoughtful and intelligent concern for ones own well-being
would lead one to take actions intended to
increase that well-being, and careful observation of what works and what doesnt
would tend to increase ones skill in doing
so. One of the things we observe is that we
do not live in isolation: Our own happiness requires that we extend the circle of
our self-interest to others to family,
friends, and even to perfect strangers
whose pleasures and pains matter to us
(p.57). But what about perfect strangers
whose pleasures and pains do not matter to
us? And what about dolphins, whales,
chimps, elephants, dogs and cats, ants, termites and microbes? (Again, where do we
draw the line about which ones are conscious?) It is not at all clear why, starting
from a moral desire to enhance ones own
well-being, we should move to a concern
for the well-being of conscious creatures
generally. A crucial premise is missing.
The missing premise might be something like an assertion of connectedness
among all beings, such that an injury to
one is in some sense an injury to all. But
Harris does not assert such a premise.
Instead he universalizes the concern for
ones own well-being, presumably because
of the Kantian belief that moral premises
should be consistent and generalizable. But
he does not make that move explicit either.
44 Philosophy Now  May/June 2012

The Value of The Moral Landscape

At least half this book is worthwhile
reading indeed. A quarter, the rant on religion, which takes up a whole chapter, is
mere recapitulation of points made elsewhere by Harris and others. Another quarter, the chapter on belief and brain structure, is intriguing and germane, but lacking
in some important details. One hopes for a
whole book on the subject.
I do not want to be overly harsh. Harris is
on to something very important here: that
careful observation of what actually works
has a great deal to tell us about what is good
and valuable. Thus despite not demonstrating the books central premise, Harris provides a thought-provoking and highly readable account of a topic of great relevance:
how we can survive and thrive in a world of
increasing confusion and complexity.

Bill Meacham received his PhD in Philosophy

from the University of Texas at Austin, made
his living as a programmer, systems analyst and
project manager, and is now an independent
scholar in philosophy. His writing can be found

of things. Moreover, lupine intelligence is

usually rated inferior to that of humans.
Rowlands suggests that since we are simians, we naturally cling to the belief that
our simian intelligence is superior to the
intelligence of other animals, like wolves.
But is it superior? Or is it just different?
Attempting to answer these questions
and more in this book, Rowlands first
acknowledges that he is a brutish ape himself, undoubtedly making it difficult to see
things from outside the perspective of an
ape. As such, he writes about many of the
negatives that come with our social intelligence, such as our evolved ability to
deceive others: When we talk about the
superior intelligence of apes, we should
bear in mind the terms of this comparison:
apes are more intelligent than wolves
because, ultimately, they are better
schemers and deceivers than wolves.
Mark and

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine

Human Values by Sam Harris, Free Press, 2010.
291pages, ISBN 978-4391-7121-91

The Philosopher
and the Wolf
by Mark Rowlands
wonder how other animals think or feel. I
often wonder: do nonhuman animals wonder how humans feel?
For Mark Rowlands, a philosophy professor and author of The Philosopher and the
Wolf, the answer to this question is No.
The Philosopher and the Wolf is a philosophical memoir about a mans life and
what he learned about it by living with a
wolf for over a decade. Ultimately, however, the book is a philosophical reflection
on the human condition. As such, its main
purpose, I think, is to examine how what we
call social intelligence affects how we
think about and engage with the world.
Social intelligence is the characteristic
which allows humans to empathize, and it
is a large part of what makes humans distinctive. It also allows us to live in civilized
societies. Wolves are intelligent; but
according to Rowlands, wolves have
mechanical intelligence, not social intelligence: they know how to do a wide range

A Story: Man Owns Wolf

In the first part of the book we quickly
learn about how Rowlands acquired Brenin
when he was living in Alabama as a twentysomething philosophy professor. Readers
are likely to wonder whether wolf ownership is an intelligent thing to allow in civilized society, and rightly so. Animal rights
activists are also likely to question the
unnatural conditions in which Brenin was
forced to live, thanks to his human owner.
Philosopher that he is, Rowlands challenges potential animal cruelty accusers by
questioning what it means to have an
unnatural existence anyway.
Rowlands is understandably defensive
about his actions, and he writes emphatiBook Reviews

Allegory of Time
Governed by
Titian, 1565

cally about how his purchase of a wolf cub

was entirely justified. His arguments in
support of his actions are compelling,
although not entirely convincing. I think
Rowlands also unintentionally demonstrates how a persons ego can lead one to
believe, with righteous certainty, things he
cannot possibly know. For example, he
writes, To suppose that Brenin could not
be happy simply because he was not doing
what natural wolves do is little more than a
banal form of human arrogance, and belittles his intelligence and flexibility. I suspect that some people may be turned off by
Rowlands own apparent arrogance (at
least I was, initially). For instance: I think
the Koehler method that I used to train
Brenin was ultimately so successful because
it resonates with a certain understanding of
the existential nature of dogs and their wild
As the book progresses we learn more
about the escapades Rowlands and Brenin
shared. Brenin sat quietly through many of
Rowlands philosophy classes, attended his
rugby matches around the southern United
States, and followed his testosterone-filled,
beer-loving owner to plenty of social gatherings (Brenin, cute wolf that he was, was a
chick magnet, according to Rowlands).
Brenin also followed his owner overseas,
spending six months in quarantine before
being allowed to enter Ireland. Rowlands
and Brenin then did a short stint together
in London before moving to the south of
France, where Brenin would eventually
take his last breath.
Book Reviews

Reflections of the
Philosopher as a
Young Wolf
A significant part of this
book is about the philosophical and personal
lessons Rowlands learned
from Brenin. Rowlands
also borrows from the
philosophies of Sartre,
Heidegger and Nietzsche,
and philosophical
vignettes are intertwined
throughout the book.
Rowlands makes no
attempt to hide the failings
and unhappiness of his
younger self. Although in
his twenties he appeared
to be a gregarious fellow,
he informs readers that his
socialization with other
humans then was largely
lubricated by alcohol. He
makes perfectly clear that at heart he was a
misanthropic loner. However, during the
drunken haze in which he spent his young
adulthood, Rowlands was not acting
authentically. He was not being true to
One of the most notable philosophicallyfocused chapters in the book
is called Times Arrow. In
it Rowlands offers a powerful argument as to why
humans struggle to
find happiness. For
starters, he thinks our
notions of happiness
smack of dire
misunderstanding. To
enjoying specific moments is
the one thing that
can make us happy.
Yet humans naturally
tend to think of life in
terms of a linear progression towards some desirable
goal. This is in order to
help us make sense of our
lives in narrative terms.
However, on this way of
thinking, the moments are
always slipping away. Our
way of understanding time,
then, is a curse which distracts
us from experiencing happiness: The human search for

happiness is, accordingly, regressive and

futile, writes Rowlands.
For the wolf, however, Rowlands claims
that there is no sense of time or progress,
so there is no end-point that a wolf is
working towards. Thus, unlike many
humans, a wolf finds happiness in its experience of moments even in the repetition
of them. Humans, by contrast, easily
become bored and seek novelty.
As a professional philosopher, Rowlands
makes it a point to also tell readers that
nothing is more inhuman than philosophy,
aside from pure mathematics or theoretical
physics (I think he forgot to add economics
to that list). Philosophy, after all, worships
logic in all its coldness. According to Rowlands, to be a philosopher is to be existentially deracinated [torn up by the roots].
Canine Conclusions
Parts of the book were touching and
thought-provoking. There were also parts of
this book where I couldnt stomach the
rationalizations Rowlands offered. Nonetheless, overall I found the book to be engaging
and enjoyable. Rowlands, clever ape that he
is, ultimately reminded me that (as he
writes), Philosophers should be offered
condolences rather than encouragement.

Greg Linster is a writer and a graduate student studying the branch of applied philosophy
called Economics at the University of Denver.
He blogs at
The Philosopher & The Wolf: Lessons from the
Wild on Love, Death & Happiness by Mark
Rowlands, Granta, 2008,
256 pages, 8.99 pb,
ISBN 978-1847080592.
Lupus Homini Homo,
or, one mans
best friend

May/June 2012  Philosophy Now 45


Heather Rivera takes a look through Tim Burtons

movie version from a feminist perspective




must say to start off with that Tim

Burtons recreation of Lewis Carrolls
classic tale surprised me no end! With
a few twists away from the original tale and
lovely graphics, Burton has created a masterpiece for women everywhere. Allow me
then to take you through a journey down
the rabbit hole: together we can explore
just how far my feminist interpretation can
go. We may feel a few bumps on the way
down, but we will emerge stronger and
enlightened at the end of this journey.
Feminist in Wonderland
At the beginning we meet Alice (Mia
Wasikowska) and her father (Marton
Csokas). Alices father-figure represents the
world of ideas and dreams for the girl.
Having a very creative mind himself,
Alices father supports his daughters
strange dreams. Mad people are always
the best, he adds, and this may be true, for
new ideas are often seen as madness, but
without them, wed still be in caves. However, anyone who differs from her cultural
environment knows how hard it is to trust
and stick to her own different mindset to
stick to her guns, so to speak and so does

46 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

Alice. In supporting her ideas, Alices father

is not the typical patriarch we would expect
for this time. Oddly, her mother (Lindsay
Duncan) fills that roll.
Alice is soon in a coach with her mother
an overpowering, overwhelming type of a
woman. She is much more dominant then
her father, and has a set of rules Alice must
follow: what she can wear, how she will
dance, with whom she will associate. Very
staunch woman indeed. Alice wants no part
of this life, and she even forgets to wear
her corset a real sticking point for her
mother, as this is improper for a young lady
of that period.
Alice is on her way to meet Hamish. Little does she know that Hamish will propose
to her in front of all her friends and family.
When he does, Alice rejects him and runs
off. This is strong move for a young lady
during this period. To escape from the
harshness of her own reality, Alice follows a
white rabbit, or possibly her own imagination, down a rabbit hole. Thus her adventure in Wonderland begins. It is time for
Alice to face her inner world, which claims
its own logic. Without such independent
thinking, the only choice a woman has is to

fit in with pre-established roles and give up

her uniqueness (or as Alice would call it,
her muchness).
Thus Alice takes a journey into the
unknown. This journey consists of two
intertwined aspects: discovering who she
is, and becoming courageous. In fact, who
she is means who she has always been; but
this has been lost or forgotten through her
growing up in a social setting where children are told how they must think, behave
and feel. In traditional education, both in
the family setting and in school, development coincides with being shaped into a
predetermined mold, with little care about
what the child is within herself. We see
this early on in the story when Alices
mother is instructing her what to do and
how to do it. Alice is not thrilled with this
predetermined path, and decides to break
free of it and go her own way.
Alice is not ready for her discoveries at
first. In fact most of the characters she
meets along the way note that she is not
Alice, or hardly Alice as the caterpillar
Absalom puts it meaning that when she
first lands in Underland, Alice has not
evolved into the woman she needs to

become. (We learn that although Alice

calls this place Wonderland, its true
name is Underland.) Is this the real Alice,
or is she just an impostor? Thats the main
motif of the film, and its a variant of an
age-old question: Is this the real me, or
just an actor pretending to be what I show
to others? Moreover, am I trustworthy?
Am I going to make it? Am I strong
enough to deal with and overcome the
monsters that may come my way? How do
I even know what is real?
The Heroine Quest
The story unfolds between fear and
compassion. More and more, Alice realizes
that her safety depends on the safety of her
loved ones, first of all the Mad Hatter
(played by Burton proteg Johnny Depp),
the manifestation of the wonderfully mad
ideas she has been hatching all her life.
The Mad Hatter is her alter-ego, or perhaps the person she is deep down, who
could exist so colorfully and unpredictably
in this sub-world thanks to Alices fathers
endorsement. Therefore Alice must save
the Hatter to save her own identity.
Now, heres an interesting thing: a male
hatter who is Alices inner being. Can a
male hatter be a feminist? This one certainly can! He truly believes in Alice, and
will do anything to help her along her
journey. He not only needs her to succeed,
he also wants her to succeed.
As the Mad Hatter talks to Alice, we
learn that he is a servant of the White
Queen (Anne Hathaway) and that the Red
Queen (Burtons wife, Helena Bonham

Carter) has taken over Wonderland. The

Red Queen represents authoritarian/patriarchal society, in which tyrannical laws are
established, ie, Alices mother. She is a
dominant figure short in stature, thus having what I think of as a Napoleon complex.
Everyone will dress and act a certain way,
and no person will dare go against the
mighty Red Queen. If you cross her its off
with your head. The Red Queens entire
entourage is frightened of her; they do
whatever she demands. On the other hand,
the White Queen is simply a witch who
defies the historical patriarchal idea of
witches being evil and wearing black. We
could say that shes the Feminine not subdued by or to patriarchal logic. As the
Feminine she is set apart: shes not
destroyed, but she lives in a separate world.
Here in her world Alice finds her the right
size not too reduced, not too oversized,
but rather just right, and supportive.
Alice must destroy the power of the Red
Queen and help the White Queen back to
ruling Wonderland. To do this Alice must
fight the Red Queens Jabberwocky, a
mythical creature. Getting to the Queen is
not enough. It still remains to fight the
monster. This is the fight any woman who
wants to follow her soul must at some time
undertake: an act of defiance and bravery to
battle for what she believes in.
Alice needs a special sword to slay the
Jabberwocky, which is bestowed upon her
by the White Queen. Swords are a symbol
of discernment, a precious thing. Without
it, courage is vain and completely blind. A
girl might instinctively reject a situation

when she perceives it as harmful. However, a woman has to go beyond that: she
needs to knows why she doesnt like a situation, in order to make the proper decision. Thats discernment at work: it distinguishes and separates. It turns strong but
unclear feelings into crystal clear ideas and
a vivid vision about life. In doing this, Alice
will finally find her true identity and a philosophy to live by. So with the sword Alice
fights the monster. The monster represents everything Alice hates: boundaries,
the rules holding her back, and the
destruction of creativity. Off with your
head! Alice shouts at the final stroke, slicing through the Jabberwockys neck.
The battle now won, Alice is finally
free. To do what? Alice is now free to say
no to conventional roles, and free to
depart on her redirected lifes journey. So
Alice refuses to marry the man arranged
for her. She will instead set out on a new
adventure and start her own business. Creative, unique, sweet, brave and independent, the metamorphosis of Alice is now

Heather Rivera is a graduate student at Stony

Brook University in New York.

May/June 20012 G Philosophy Now 47

And strangers were as brothers to his clocks
W.H. Auden

eaders of this column will know

that I am committed to snatching
time from the jaws of physics; in
particular to rescuing it from a reduction
to a quasi-spatial dimension and its further
reduction to numbers. Thus reduced, time
becomes a mere variable t that has no
qualities, only numerical values, and none
of the features that make it central to
human life. For example, little t, unlike
time as we experience it, has no tenses.
The difference between (say) a regretted
past and an anticipated future is lost in t.
I could go on about the poverty of t, but
I wont, because I am also aware that in
demoting t I might overlook something
rather extraordinary: the mysterious verb
to time. While all beings (pebbles, trees,
monkeys etc) are in some sense in time
immersed or perhaps dissolved in it we
humans are alone in timing what happens
including (or especially) timing what happens to our very lives. We portion time into
days, and number days, and parts of days,
and know that our days are numbered. One
striking illustration of this is that of all the
occupants of the Solar System rocks,
trees, lemurs, etc we alone use the relative movements of the Solar Systems components to organise our own commitments.
What a delicious piece of cheek to appropriate the rotation of the Earth round the
Sun to instruct us when to do what for
example, when to have our Christmas dinner. To vary a saying of Douglas Adams:
Time is mysterious; tea-time doubly so.
So we should not allow objections to
the reduction of time to little t to allow us
to overlook the mysterious activity of timing, or the extraordinary truth that despite
the gap between lived and measured time,
measuring it has enabled us (via science
and technology) to extend, protect, enrich
and enhance our existence indeed, to
have the time of our lives. Measurement
began our might as the poet William

48 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

A Hasty Report From

A Tearing Hurry
Raymond Tallis has a measured response
to numbered seconds.
Yeats said: it extended our powers beyond
anything that could be imagined by our
pre-numerate ancestors.
Deep Time Thoughts
Timing has not only enabled us to see
more of how the material world works so
that we can work on it, or with it, more
effectively; it has also greatly extended our
temporal gaze. In recent centuries, we have
come to situate ourselves in deep time:
the time revealed by archaeologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists and astrophysicists. Thus we locate ourselves in a
span of time that exceeds the duration of
our lives by billions of years, and the duration of the species to which we belong by
not much less. The measurement that has
made us collectively mighty has created a
mirror in which we see ourselves as individually, existentially small a tendency I
criticised in my previous column (You
Chemical Scum, You).
Yet the sense, implicit in the verb to
time, of accessing time directly, is confusing, and leads to the deeply questionable
notion that clocks measure the passage of
time something to which we shall return
on another occasion. Instead, let us glance
now at another aspect of timing also easily
overlooked which becomes more apparent
as timepieces become more sophisticated. It
is that we note the time at a time. So I note
that it is 4:30 at 4:30: I looked at the clock
at 4:30 and saw that it was 4:30. This
underlines the extent to which, as timers, we
both stand outside of time and are immersed
in it. To know that it is 4:30 is to be at 4:30,
and also to be looking on 4:30 as if from a
temporal outside. So in subjecting time to
timing, we seem to have succeeded in stepping to one side of time in some respect,
while of course, remaining in it.
So, while we are pulling time out of the
jaws of physics, we must not forget what an
amazing, and deeply puzzling, activity timing is. And its consequences are immeasurable. It transforms social life into a multitude of intermeshing ensembles harmonised
by timepieces. We watch time and time

watches us; and the portability of the

watch compared with, say, the obelisk,
locks together the watching and the
watched more intimately. Inside these ever
more tightly drawn temporal meshes, the
clock rules our every moment. The living
rhythms spelt out in our breathing, our
walking and our beating hearts, are overridden by something totally different, symbolised by the way the watch we consult
with fast-beating heart clasps our wrist,
seeming to strangle our pulse. We dance
to a rhythm of the shared day, of the common world, of the universe, thats imposed
and embraced: it is ours and not ours.
This is not all bad, of course. Our lives
are vastly enriched by keeping track of the
time, and we are collectively and individually empowered by co-ordination: dancing
to the music of clock time, we can work
together more effectively to meet and
anticipate our basic needs, to generate ever
more complex ways of exploiting nature,
and to erect defences against a universe
that has no particular care for us. And we
must not underestimate what an extraordinary achievement this is. To take a salient
example: the operating theatre. There is
the surface orchestration of the lives of all
the experts (surgeons, nurses, technicians,
anaesthetists, cleaners, and engineers) necessary to make the procedure happen
safely. But beneath the task of getting them
all to the operating theatre at the right
time, there is an almost bottomless infrastructure of temporally co-ordinated life.
Think of the engineer responsible for
making sure the complex machinery in the
theatre works, at the right time. He has to
arrive on time, and his journey will have
involved a multitude of conductors of his
private orchestra of activities ranging
from the alarm clock he set to wake him
up, to the traffic lights whose efficient, centrally-regulated working made sure that he
was not held up forever in jammed traffic.
His assumption of his present post as hospital engineer will also be the end stage of a
long journey that has depended on meeting
with others at pre-set times. His skills, for

example, will have involved a multitude of

people whose tabled time, set out in a curriculum, will have meshed with his, so that
he was able to benefit from their expertise.
The equipment on which he learned his
skills, either directly or as illustrations of
principles, had to be manufactured, tested,
delivered, maintained and demonstrated by
an endless army of individuals turning up
on time and timing their activities to fit in
with the activities of others (including the
activity of timing the performance of the
machinery). The equipment will itself have
a multitude of components based on
clocks, visible and hidden, created by other
clock-watchers on physical principles whose
discovery and application and commercialisation involved yet more armies of clockdrilled people. At every point in his life,
our theatre engineer will have been borne
up by myriads of clock-conducted fellows.
Time for Tyranny
This is a beneficent example. There are
other less heart-warming instances of the
consequences of temporal orchestration.
The gigantic torture chamber that is
North Korea is an extreme instance of
how the imposed brotherhood of clocks
can subordinate individual life entirely to a
collective existence where each is reduced
to an atom in a pattern of power servicing
the needs of a small elite. And the scale of
the catastrophic wars of recent centuries
would not have been possible without
clocks to bring men and materiel together
on a giant scale, permitting destruction to
be both precise and ubiquitous. The synchronies which enhance our ability to
realise our collective power and knowledge
and which enhance that collective power
with our ever-increasing collective knowledge, unifying greater numbers of us with
ever closer and denser connections make
it possible to hurt each other with appallingly
enhanced efficiency. As time gets further
from subjective experience, goes further
from our beating hearts, heartlessness may
install itself in the heart of our world.
There are also lesser woes that may follow from keeping time. The kitchen clock,
my watch, the pips from the radio peeping
the hour, preside over my hurry, your
hurry, the hurry of widening rings of
friends and strangers who soften and
domesticate the infinite hard clockwork of
the universe. Thus our orchestrated lives
may be being emptied even as they are
being enriched. The ever-greater efficiency of an ever-more-intimately-clocked
world adds to our opportunities, but it also

drives a positive feedback cycle in which

we demand more of the world and the
world demands more of us. This quickening of pace is evident in every aspect of our
lives. We supplement the treadmill of
work with a treadmill of pleasure hurry
seems to be a constant condition, even if
the hurry is to catch a plane to go on holiday, to arrive at a concert on time, or to
honour an engagement whose sole purpose
is for a casual get-together. We are forever
on the edge of being late, and any dereliction in this respect causes us anguish: we
are mortified, and the others are impatient.
So as we seem to get a grip on time via
numbers, time gets an ever-tighter grip on
us. We are like Gulliver in Lilliput, pinned
to the ground by a multitude of chronological threads, notwithstanding that our
hastes become more manic and our passage from one thing to the next is an
increasingly fluid slide.

municate more electronically, we seem to
communicate less. This paradox symptomatizes what is happening more generally:
that, as we travel faster and our journeys are
increasingly effortless, so we seem to travel
lighter, indeed to become lighter. We are
attenuated or, as I have described it, ettenuated. The inability fully to experience
our experiences, except when those experiences are unpleasant (hunger, cold, pain,
terror, grief) becomes ever more evident.

A Dance To The Music Of Clock Time

Future Continuous
The tyranny of the clock extends to our
future. The calendar on the wall prescribes
what is going to (or ought to) happen. Our
days are mortgaged weeks, months and
years ahead. A phone call on the morning
of November 12th 2010 commits the
afternoon of July 14th 2012. The future
we may not even live to see is populated
with constraining possibilities, with shared
intentions that are mutual obligations.
The newer forms of communication not
only permit an instantaneity of response,
they seem to demand it. Others expect
immediate or continuous availability, and
we expect this of others. We are electronically skewered by emails, texts, cellphone
calls. Our lives are co-ordinated, shaped,
even filled, by the heavens not by the
stars, but by orbiting satellites. As we com-

We have to look to boredom to restore to

time its weight, so that time hangs heavily.
So while we are rescuing time from the
jaws of physics, we might spare a little time
to think how we might rescue ourselves
from the machinery of clocks while still,
of course, honouring our responsibilities in
an increasingly closely clocked human
world, and being duly respectful of what we
timers have achieved. Thinking about the
mystery of time; of timing; and yes, of the
body of knowledge that is physics, all seemingly transilluminating the material world,
may be a place to start. But I cant start
now because My God, is that the time!!!!
Ive got to email this article to the editor.

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher,

poet, broadcaster and novelist. His latest book In
Defence of Wonder is just out from Acumen.
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 49

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May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 51

A is for Assumption
Joel Marks on why the world needs philosophy.

ocrates famously averred that the unexamined life is not

worth living. This was part of his apology when, on trial
for his life, he tried to explain what it means to be a philosopher. I myself have taken this definition to heart: that philosophy is the examination of fundamental assumptions. I have
been examining with a vengeance of late not intending to do
so as a philosophical exercise, mind you, but quite spontaneously. So perhaps it will help you to understand what I have
been about in these columns if I review my recent philosophical
hobbyhorses in this light. As it happens, like assumption (and,
for that matter, apology), all of them begin with a: animals
(Issues 62, 66, 67, 72, and 85), asteroids (Issues 79 and 86), and
amorality (Issues 80, 81, 82, 84, and 87). Ill now explain the
common thread that links my discourses on the lot.
Animals. Human beings treat other animals abominably. (A
is for abominably!) There are some exceptions, such as, in
some cultures, pets; but even pets represent an offense against
free-living animals in their natural habitats, who have been
deliberately bred into dependency and as a result dumbeddown as well. Almost all pets are denied the freedom to roam,
whether by foot, feather, or fin; instead they are confined to a
building or the end of a leash, or kept on display in a cage or a
bowl. The condition of the vast majority of nonhuman animals,
however, is without even the compensations that may attach to
being a pet. Animals in the wild are trapped for their skins or
hunted down for pure sport. Animals in captivity (other than
pets) are turned into egg or milk machines, or fattened for
direct human consumption, or consigned to laboratories for
testing and vivisection. All in all, it is not good to be a nonhuman animal in a world controlled by human animals.
However, many human beings are sensitive to one or
another aspect of our inhumanity to other animals and therefore strive to better their lot. Thus have arisen numerous societies for the prevention of cruelty to other animals and, more
generally, for the promotion of their welfare. One would think,
then, that all animal advocates would be welfarists. But this is
not the case. Why not? Because welfarism is based on an
assumption which, if examined, proves untenable or at least
questionable. The assumption is that it is all right to use other
animals so long as we do so with an eye to their welfare. Or to
put it epigrammatically: It is okay to use animals so long as we
do not abuse them.
But this assumption may be unwarranted. The reason is that
use and abuse, while indeed distinct concepts, may only differ
in reality under certain conditions, and those conditions may
not obtain for other animals. One argument goes like this: So
long as x is at an extreme power disadvantage to y, any use of x

52 Philosophy Now G May/June 2012

by y will inevitably deteriorate into abuse. Well, clearly, under

present circumstances all other animals are virtually powerless
relative to human beings; therefore just about any use we
make of them leads inexorably to their abuse. And is this not
precisely the situation we observe?
This is why among animal advocates there has arisen in
opposition to welfarism the movement known as (a is for)
abolitionism, which seeks to abolish all institutions of animal
use. Thus, there would be no animal agriculture, no hunting
(other than for real need), no animal circuses, no zoos, no pets.
The breeding of domestic animals would end, and the preservation of wild habitats be maximized. Abolitionists further
maintain that the emphasis on animal welfare actually serves
to encourage animal use, since if people believe that the
animals they use are being well taken care of, they will lose
their main incentive for discontinuing that use; and hence, by
the argument above, animal welfarism further entrenches
animal abuse, and so is counterproductive even to welfare in
the long run. Here again the evidence seems to be in plain
sight: For all the growth of animal welfare organizations and
just about every major animal protection organization is a
welfare, as opposed to an abolition, organization the abuse of
animals has only increased and shows no sign even of decelerating. For reasons such as these I have allied myself with abolitionists like Lee Hall and Gary Francione.
Asteroids. Here I have cheated a little bit because (c is for)
comets are also a major concern, not only asteroids. But due to
their overwhelming numbers in our vicinity at present, asteroids have taken the lead in the public imagination as a threat
to humanity. The more one learns about their potential to do
us grave harm should we ever again collide with one the size of
Manhattan or larger, the more one finds oneself tossing and
turning in bed at night. These rocks number in the thousands
up to the trillions, depending on size and distance considered;
and the inevitability of another big one eventually striking our
planet unless we prevent it is denied by no one. Indeed, no
one denies that an object the size of the one that wiped out the
dinosaurs, and that would wipe out human civilization, will
one day bear down upon us. Furthermore, it is now a common
occurrence to discover asteroids that are large enough to
wreak havoc if they hit us and that do in fact make a close
approach to our planet, such as 2005 YU55, which came closer
than the Moon last November 8 (2011), and 99942 Apophis,
which will come even closer on April 13, 2029.
Thus have arisen Spaceguard and other programs, whose
mission is to detect such hazards and devise and implement
mitigating strategies. It is not easy, however, to deflect an


& other


incoming object of human-extinction size, which would be

10km in diameter or larger. Fortunately, as one regularly hears
from the scientists who inform the public on this matter,
objects of that size likely to come into Earths immediate vicinity are exceedingly rare. In fact there is a power law of size relative to quantity, such that the larger the object, the fewer
there are. Therefore, given limited resources, the present de
facto policy is to focus on detecting medium-sized NEOs
(Near-Earth Objects) ones that could, say, wipe out a city
and designing and testing means of deflecting them.
Alas, this seemingly sensible and rational policy is based on
an assumption that will not withstand critical scrutiny. The
assumption is that the relatively small number of the relatively
large objects makes it unlikely that we will be hit by one any
time soon. But this is fallacious. The reason is that these events
occur at totally random intervals. Therefore an extinctionsized object could appear on the horizon at any time. The statistics only tell us that this will occur sooner or later, but they
do not tell us when. One takes false comfort in their relative
rarity in the recent historical record.
Indeed, this way leads to absurdity. For suppose there were
insufficient reason to begin to prepare to prevent (a is for)
Armageddon by asteroid or comet this year because of the
exceedingly low statistical probability of such an occurrence.
Therefore there would never be a time when there is sufficient
reason to prepare for it, since the statistical probability remains
constant (at least until Armageddon occurs ... but possibly even
then!). But Armageddon will occur unless we prevent it.
Therefore it is rational to allow Armageddon to occur. But it is
not rational to allow Armageddon to occur. Therefore it is
false that there is insufficient reason to begin to prepare to
prevent Armageddon by asteroid or comet this year just
because of its exceedingly low statistical probability.
Thus, just as animal protection based on the fallacious
policy of welfarism serves to the detriment of animal protection, so planetary defense based on the fallacious policy of
mid-sized impact mitigation serves to the detriment of planetary defense.
Amorality. It was only after I had finished writing the culminating monograph of my career as a so-called normative ethicist that I realized that both the monograph and my career had
been based on an assumption that could be seriously questioned, namely, that morality exists. The case against morality
is known in the specialist literature as the argument to the best
explanation. Simply stated it is the claim that all moral phenomena, including our occasional tendency to altruism and
our beliefs in moral obligation, moral guilt, moral desert, and
the like, can plausibly be accounted for by our evolutionary
and cultural history, without the need to postulate any actual
moral obligation, moral guilt, moral desert, and the like. So
morality turns out to be like religion, or theism in particular, in
that the more plausible explanation of our belief in God, etc.,
is that such a belief has served to help us survive rather than
that there actually is a God.
Now this may seem to lead to the conclusion that we are
therefore in the peculiar position of needing to cling to a delusion. However, some few of us (including most explicitly at
present Richard Garner and myself) maintain that the time is

Meteor Crater, Arizona

1.2km in diameter
50,000 years old

now ripe to expose morality for what it is an illusion and

thence to eliminate it from our lives. The argument is an
empirical one: in a nutshell, that a world without the felt-absolutism and felt-certainty of moral convictions would be less
violent, less hypocritical, less egotistical, less fanatical and so
forth than our present, moralistic world is, and therefore we
would prefer it. Garner makes the case at length in his Beyond
Morality (now online in a revised version), and I in my Ethics
without Morals (forthcoming from Routledge). (Note: My personal story of counter-conversion to amorality is told in Bad
Faith: A Philosophical Memoir, which I shall perhaps one day
post on the Internet.)
And observe that this claim is analogous to the two other
claims discussed above. For just as animal protection based on
the fallacious policy of welfarism acts to the detriment of
animal protection, and planetary defense based on the fallacious policy of mid-sized impact mitigation acts to the detriment of planetary defense, so, moral abolitionists (not to be
confused with animal-use abolitionists, although I happen to
be both) argue, an ethics based on morality is both fallacious
and self-defeating. The fallacy of morality is that the strength
of our moral convictions (or intuitions) warrants our belief in
their truth. The self-defeatingness of morality is that a moralist world is (today if not heretofore) more likely to be discordant with our considered desires than an amoralist world.
Assumptions. So this is my catalogue of dangerous assumptions that license (1) the ever-increasing exploitation and
slaughter of nonhuman animals by the tens and hundreds of
billions, (2) the exposure of humanity to extinction by asteroidal or cometary impact (maybe not a bad deal for some of
the animals, though), and (3) the excessively judgmental and
even lethal imposition of our preferences on one another. My
aim has been to illustrate the utility of philosophy as the critical examiner of our most fundamental and pervasive and
hence, most likely to be mischievous assumptions. By a
curious but inevitable logic, the foundations of our beliefs are
the shakiest part of the whole edifice of our knowledge, precisely because they are the most taken for granted positively
buried in the underground of our psyche. Philosophy brings
them into the light of day for inspection and possible repair or,
if they prove too rotted out, condemnation of the whole structure that has rested upon them.
I must admit, (a is for) alas, that my own philosophical
efforts to date have little to show by way of liberating animals,
saving humanity, or making society less violent and antagonistic. But perhaps I can at least be given an A for effort.

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of

New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. Dont
assume that you may prudently ignore his website
May/June 2012 G Philosophy Now 53

P.K.F. Robinson 1908-2012

Michael OConnor reports on the Diagonalist English philosopher sadly crushed to
death by his Philosophical House.

he distinguished English philosopher P.K.F. Robinson died on

April 1st at the age of 103, when
his Diagonalist philosophical house collapsed, crushing him to death. Robinson
burst onto the philosophical scene at the
age of twenty-one with his book A Concept
in My Mind (1929). A year earlier he had
been cycling into the quad of his Oxford
college at speed. A malfunction of the bicycles chain propelled him forwards like a
rocket, and he hit the college wall face first and fell into a coma.
This had profound consequences for philosophy. As Robinson
tells us in his Autobiography (1986): On the seventh day of the
coma I awoke with a new philosophical insight grounded in rational intuition and known with the epistemic certainty of the
self-evident: I was a concept in my own mind. I knew this indubitably, and it formed the metaphysical foundation of the system of thought I expounded in A Concept in My Mind. (p.837)
Robinson was a concept in his own mind! This fundamental
insight laid the foundations for a new era in British and then
Western philosophy. It blew existing conceptual frameworks
apart, exposing the history of Western philosophy as a series of
errors based on a conceptual mistake. At this time Robinson
was regarded by many as the greatest thinker of his generation,
and it seemed that at last philosophy had made real progress.
Six years later, during a darts match with the Logical Positivist A.J. Ayer, a remark of Ayers caused Robinson to lie down
for three weeks. I remained in the mode of horizontality, abjuring consciousness, thought and language, and especially
apostrophes, he later wrote. When he woke, he immediately
started writing three articles in analytical philosophy: The
meaning of And, The logic of But, and The definition of If.
He never spoke of his concept in my mind theory again.
Seminal books on But, If and And followed during the
1930s, alongside his positivistic The Obliquity of Metaphysics.
A noise made by Wittgenstein in 1949 over cheese led
Robinson to spend the rest of the year horizontal in bed, reflecting. On January 1st 1950, he leapt from his bed, and by the
end of the year he had published his book No More Ifs, Ands, or
Buts: The Impossibility of Dening These Terms or Any Others I
Have Heard Of. During this time, Balliol College residents often
had their sleep disturbed in the middle of the night by the
sound of Robinson screaming The word And is just too hard
to understand. I cant bear it! Leave me alone!
In 1953, while cycling backwards to Balliol in a fume at J.L.
Austin (whose work influenced his newly-published book How
To Do Nasty Things To People With Words), a collision with an
Oxford omnibus led to the loss of Robinsons left leg. This inspired him to spend ten weeks in a vertical position, occasionally hopping. Little was heard from him until 1960, which saw
the publication of groundbreaking articles in the new field of
Applied Philosophy: Ethics For Unipeds, The Phenomenology of Quadrupeds, and the controversial and much misun54 Philosophy Now

May/June 2012

derstood The Metaphysical Sexuality of the

By 1969, new thinking about the meaning of
But led him to publish his nine-volume
magnum opus, Notes towards a Prolegomena for
an Introduction to a Preliminary Enquiry into
the Grounds of the Possibility of Dening But.
This work was the inspiration for the Bulgarian Preliminarist movement of the 1970s,
whose mass suicide in 1987 unnerved many.
In the late 1970s Robinson immersed himself
in continental philosophy, especially Heidegger. Robinsons
startling work in existentialist ontology, Man Is Always Facing
Forward (1984), argued that:
Dasein [Man] is always facing forwards. He exists in the ontological modes
of Being Awake (Being as Openness) or Being Asleep (Being as non-Being, as
Closedness). Man the Awake is sometimes Being-on-his-feet in the existential mode of standing up, sometimes Being-in-a-chair (sitting down, either as
Being Awake or Being Asleep), and sometimes existing in the mode of horizontality (lying down, either as Being Asleep or Having-a-rest). In the ekstasis
of wine or spirit inebriation there is a turn (Kehre) from ontological verticality to horizontality, from standing up to Being-on-the-ground, and Mans
fallenness (Pisht) is revealed. But if there is no Earth, Man falls through
nothingness and is groundless, neither standing, sitting, nor lying down.
Nonetheless, he is still facing forward, but without esse, percipi, Being-in-theworld, transcendental rationality, or a cup of tea. (p.2562.)

Reading Heidegger led Robinson to study Diltheys theory

that historical events are unrepeatable. Robinson attempted to
integrate this view with existentialist principles in his book Vuja
De: The Feeling That This Has Never Happened Before (1988).
In his later years, in an effort to overcome the vertical/horizontal dichotomy, Robinson spent months living diagonally,
leaning against buildings on street corners so as to experience
Being more authentically. His arrest for vagrancy led him to
originate the philosophical school of Architectural Dasein. He
built a Diagonalist house near Lewes with walls at 45 degree
angles, and published The Metaphysics of Obliquity. In his garden
he created a Platonic Cave with a fire inside, and watched the
play of appearances and shadows on the wall. He would often
suddenly turn and hop out of the cave in a frantic search for
Platonic Forms, occasionally shouting Gotcha!
Since his death, colleagues have been celebrating P.K.F
Robinsons life and his contribution to philosophy. Professor
Peregrine Proclivity of Maudlin College, Oxford, said, An
avid but incompetent geometer as a youth, he was as delightful
on one leg as on two. His academic career spanned the twentieth century and embodied most of its philosophical currents.
At his peak he was the fastest philosopher in Oxford, except
when Bernard Williams was visiting.

Michael OConnor is an Academic Skills Advisor at the University of

Toronto and a former Open University tutor in Philosophy.