By Charles Foster
How well do you know yourself? Can you identify confidently your convictions on major moral issues? If you can, do you think you could change them in a moment, and argue robustly and with conviction for exactly the opposite position?
By Charles Foster
I’m just reading Michael Rosen’s (very good) book, ‘Dignity: Its history and meaning’ (Harvard University Press, 2012). He robustly questions the use of peer review in philosophy. Of course it is an essential part of science, but philosophy is rather different. He writes: ‘If [as he argues] the idea of completeness in philosophical arguments is unattainable, the attempt to be ‘rigorous’ can lead to a defensive tendency to reduce ambitions and to protect some tiny piece of ground against the possible objections of those closest to oneself in background and outlook (one’s natural peer reviewers). What is lost is not just accessibility but also the willingness to call into questions basic assumptions (one’s own and others’), which is precisely what, for many of, the point of doing philosophy was in the first place. Much contemporary philosophy takes place in an atmosphere of what can only be called (however historically unfair that label may be) scholasticism.’ (p. xiv)
Hear, hear. There’s a philosophical culture of scared, paralysed conservatism. (Of course not in Oxford). Much philosophical writing is simple reiteration of old ideas with, at best, some tentative suggestions as to how a footnote to an old paper might be slightly redrafted. Philosophical progress is regarded as necessarily incremental rather than revolutionary. There’s far too much reverence. Nothing should be unthinkable, but almost everything is. All the philosophical emperors are devoutly assumed to be fully and gorgeously clothed. They’re not. Being creative is assumed to be incompatible with rigour. It’s not. Continue reading
By Charles Foster
Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.
This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’
It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds - (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.
If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that? Continue reading
‘I was always the life and soul of the party, flirting with everyone’, wrote Lucille Howe, in ‘Fabulous Magazine’, (22 July 2012), ‘but I wanted John to fall in love with the real, quieter me’. In the same article, Charlotte Ruhle notes how her psychotherapy helped her to recover from a broken relationship. ‘[My] friends started saying I….seemed more like my old self.‘
The media, and indeed our ordinary conversations, are awash with this sort of language. Not only are we conscious – having a sense that there is an ‘I’ that is in some sort of continuity with the ‘I’ that existed yesterday, will hopefully exist tomorrow, and to whom things happen – but we have firm convictions about the nature of the ‘I’. When it is not allowed to express itself – to ‘be itself’, we complain. Depending on our education, we say that we’re ‘out of sorts’, ‘not myself’, or ‘ontologically vertiginous’. Continue reading
By Charles Foster
A highly intelligent 32 year old woman has profound anorexia. She has had it for years. It is complicated by alcohol and opiate dependency, and by personality disorder. Her BMI is 11.3. A healthy BMI is around 20. Less than 17.7 is in the anorexic range. Less than 14 indicates dangerous weight loss. Over the last 4 years her BMI has been well below 14. She describes her life as ‘pure torment’. All the things she wanted to do have been frustrated by her illness. She feels unable to give anything to the world, or to take anything out. For years she has had intense treatment for her anorexia and related conditions. On about 10 occasions she has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. One of those periods lasted almost 4 months. Twice she has executed advance decisions refusing life-saving or life-prolonging treatment.
There are only two options: death or the violation of her autonomy . If she is not admitted against her will to hospital, detained there for not less than a year, and forcibly fed under physical or chemical restraint, she will die. She understands this perfectly well. She doesn’t actively seek death, but doesn’t want to be force fed. As well as the anorexic’s usual horror of calories, the forcible medical administration of nutrition reminds her horribly of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Continue reading
By Charles Foster
Richard Dawkins is at it again in the Guardian. It’s the familiar stuff: a fluent, funny, whingeing litany of jibes about genocidal Israelites, filicidal Gods and benighted Tennessean Creationists. We’ve all heard it all before, of course. Dawkins has become a hackneyed national treasure. He’s a sort of pantomime dame – always doing the same old gags. We’d miss him if he didn’t appear. We love him for his ridiculousness, the extremity of his speech, and the extravagant colour of his bile, just as we love the dame’s unfeasibly enormous breasts and her outrageously striped tights. You’ve got to admire the Dawkins-Dame. He never rests on his laurels. His lines might be the same, but he tries to alternate his frocks. This time he’s wearing a very fetching little pretext: read the King James Version. It’s great literature, and it’ll tell you, almost as well as Dawkins himself, just how absurd religion is. Continue reading
By Charles Foster
There’s a significant association of PTSD symptoms with a particular allele, according to a recently published study from UCLA and Duke. Some of the ethical consequences are already being discussed. One consequence might be military. One might be able to detect and filter out PTSD-vulnerable recruits. Perhaps that’s a kindness. It would certainly seem militarily prudent. There might be legitimate qualms about creating a biologically callous warrior-class, but you’re not creating its components – you’re just collecting them together. You might not want to go to their parties, and you might wonder about the mutually brutalizing effect of corralling them in a barracks, but the exercise is really only a scientifically more informed version of the selection that goes on in any event. It’s not very interesting ethically.
But what if a gene for PTSD-resistance could be inserted or artificially switched on? It doesn’t seem fanciful. Should the military be permitted (or perhaps even required) to PTSD-proof their personnel? Continue reading
You’d better believe that believers are better.
So far as religiosity is concerned, humanity, say Cooper and Pullig , is divided fairly neatly into three clusters: Skeptics, Nominals and Devouts. The bulk of the evidence suggests that there is a relationship between religiousness and moral reasoning. That relationship, though, is complex. Its anatomy needs a lot of exploration. Cooper’s and Pullig’s exciting and audacious paper, which concerns broadly Christian religiosity amongst marketing students in the US, suggests that narcissism is a factor in explaining why individuals make wrong ethical decisions. That in itself isn’t surprising. Narcissism, for instance, is a predictor of white-collar crime in business: narcissistic individuals tend to think that they are above the laws that govern the behaviour of lesser mortals. What is perhaps surprising is that ethical decision-making was affected by narcissism only in Nominals and Devouts. The reasons for that can be speculated about very entertainingly. But I want to highlight one almost incidental observation: ‘Notably, Skeptics in general exhibit worse ethical judgment than respondents in either of the other two clusters.’
By Charles Foster
A patient in his 40s with locked-in syndrome, referred to in court only as ‘Martin’, wants to die. His wife cannot bring herself to help him. He would therefore need help from others. He is concerned that would-be helpers might face prosecution under the assisted suicide legislation. In the latest line of attempts to clarify the way that the law of assisted suicide actually works, he will challenge, by way of judicial review proceedings, the criteria used by the DPP in deciding whether or not to prosecute people who assist suicide. The exact nature of that challenge doesn’t matter for present purposes. What does matter is that his lawyers, in preparing the judicial review proceedings, might have to do things that fall within the (necessarily) wide ambit of the offence of ‘encouraging or assisting suicide’. They might, for instance, have to communicate with Dignitas, and find out whether there is a doctor who would be prepared to assist.
Martin’s lawyers therefore sought and obtained a declaration that they could prepare his case without putting themselves in jeopardy. This was hypercautious, and perhaps artfully, strategically melodramatic. But one can hardly blame them for wanting to be safe, and of course it was right to grant the declaration. Whatever one thinks of the morality of assisted suicide or the legal merits of the judicial review application, the court door must be open to everyone. Lawyers must be able, freely and fearlessly, to facilitate the making of even absurd, outrageous, and downright evil submissions. To facilitate an evil submission is a good thing – a public service: it allows the court to express its disapproval.
Law is not an immutable monolith. It doesn’t spring fully formed from the loins of the legislature. It is chiselled by all sorts of people – but most notably by judges, assisted by the contentions of lawyers – until it’s workable and fits the demands of the society it is supposed to reflect, serve and sustain.
Lawyers, then – and particularly the most cynically mercenary of litigators – are essential public servants. Their professional ethics demand that they put personal preference to one side in fulfilling this function.
This is very costly for the lawyers themselves – although I’m not expecting much sympathy. St Paul observed that a man who sleeps with a prostitute ‘becomes one with her’ – unites his soul with her. And when he pulls away he leaves a bit of his own soul behind. Eventually he’s not got much of his own soul left: it’s distributed around the brothels.
It’s rather like that with lawyers. Lawyers stand on metaphorical (and sometimes actual) street corners with their gowns hitched up, ready to sleep with whoever drives up. If you identify sufficiently with your client, you’ll eventually lose what you are. That great theologian Horace Rumpole noted that the first casualty of the law is sensitivity. The second is your soul. Lawyers, for a decent hourly rate, make a Faustian bargain. It’s negotiated by their Mephistophelean clients, but the soul’s ultimately eaten up by the Greater Good.
Note what’s really happening here. The lawyers don’t, at least at first, change their own beliefs. Personal morality isn’t ablated: it just keeps its mouth shut, thinking, because of the Bargain, that it’s not entitled to a voice. Philosophically minded lawyers might try to justify the Bargain to themselves in the early hours of the morning by saying that the public utility of free expression is a good so great that its service (even when it means the truncation of oneself) is perfect freedom.
The trouble with not using voices, limbs and consciences is that they atrophy. Being a lawyer is desperately dangerous. But the risk isn’t taken just for £400 an hour: it’s taken for you. I hope you’re grateful.
So: by signing the professional register, lawyers have signed away the right to conscientious objection.
But they are, I think, the only professionals who do this. Julian Savulescu is wrong to insist that a doctor who refuses to do abortions should – at least if there’s an insufficient supply of abortionists – forfeit her right to be a doctor. A doctor who leaves her conscience along with her shoes outside the operating theatre is simply a bad doctor. Whole human beings need to be treated by whole human beings, and a doctor whose conscience has been excised pursuant to some misguided deference to supposed professional obligation is not a whole human being. Just as a proper doctor is not a mere functionary, doing what the patient insists, so a proper Parliamentarian is not merely a mouthpiece, slavishly parroting, but in Parliamentary language, what his constituents say. Burke rightly said: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
Lawyers – or at least litigators in any country where the courts can be trusted- are in a unique position. Their right of conscientious objection evaporates because, if it persisted, some things might be left unsaid, unexamined, and unjudged – to the detriment of the society of which we are all a part. There are no compelling analogies with other professions (and no, journalists don’t come close).
So: hug a lawyer: he’s risking damnation on your behalf.
By Charles Foster
I spent a lot of the weekend at a very good conference entitled Moral Evil in Practical Ethics.
There was, I think, a complete or almost complete consensus about many things. Here are two: (1) Evil exists, and is of a different quality from merely sub-optimal moral behaviour. (2) To recognise evil implied a duty to do something to combat it. Everyone in the room seemed to see (2) as a corollary of (1).
This second proposition is a classic ‘ought’ claim. But how did we get there? The audience included many distinguished philosophers. Were we all plunging naively but disastrously into the is-ought gap? Was the conclusion sloppily reached, and untenable? Continue reading