Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

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Victim blaming and ‘asking for it’

A short section of a thing I’m working on at the moment. The overall thing will be about the general notion of victim blaming and the instances it is used to cover. There will be lots of J.L. Austin in it.

The phrase ‘asking for it’, used in so many cases of rape and sexual assault, masks a distinction between two very different notions, and often slides between its two different senses. The distinction is that between a provocation and a request. On the provocation model, a woman’s clothes, behaviour or location are seen as a red rag to a bull – the perpetrator is presented as having been ‘provoked’ to commit the assault. This is similar to the ‘Right, now you’re asking for it!’ of a barroom brawl. On the request model, the perpetrator is claimed to have responded in a reasonable or understandable way to a masked or non-verbal request for sexual contact.

‘Provocation’ itself is typically used in a range of ways: I might be wearing a provocative top, or say provocative things about a renowned philosopher (perhaps both at the same time). These cases are very different: the latter might be a cause for condemnation, while the former is in most cases fairly benign. Perhaps sometimes I might even provoke thought. ‘Provocation’ also has legal and medical uses. The legal use is parasitic on the ordinary understanding of provoking anger: under many jurisdictions, someone charged with committing a violent crime may be excused or exculpated if they have been ‘provoked’ in a way that has led them to lose control. In the medical sense, ‘provocation’ is any technique used in a clinical trial to elicit a particular reflex or bodily response. The legal, medical and anger cases suggest a loss of control or responsibility for one’s own actions, an absence of the capacity for rational thought, and the eliciting of a response that is not fully voluntary. This seems to be an element of the sexual sense too, although one that we are probably better off without.

The sense in which ‘asking for it’ is construed as a request is in strong contrast to this. It is used when a victim is understood to be consenting by behaving in particular ways, for example by going to the perpetrator’s room, or by dancing with him. If we understand it in this way, then the perpetrator is understood as someone who is capable of attending to another person’s intentions, and acting on the basis of what he takes those intentions to be. The behaviour is taken either to express the victim’s desire for sexual contact, or to be reasonably interpretable as doing so.

It seems unlikely that someone could be capable of behaving in this manner, while at the same time being so ‘provoked’ in the former sense that they are unresponsive to the normal reasons for action. On the first understanding of ‘asking for it’, the perpetrator is (partially) excused on the basis that he is not in control of his actions, while in the latter, he is (partially) excused because he has made a reasonable interpretation of the situation before him and acted accordingly. The cases also differ with respect to the perpetrator’s supposed attitude to the victim. In the first case he is portrayed as (excusably) unresponsive to her preferences and wellbeing, while in the second he is portrayed as responsive to them.

In both senses, this phrase is a case of blaming the victim, but for different reasons. In the first sense, the perpetrator is presented as the proximate cause of the attack, but his moral responsibility is taken to be overridden. In such cases, his actions are taken to be caused rather than chosen, and the victim is then taken to be the most immediately responsible party with free agency. This is usually only taken to be ‘partial’ blame, where the perpetrator’s actions are not so beyond his control that he is entirely exculpated, and the blame is ‘distributed’ between perpetrator and victim. The second case is also an instance of victim blaming, but the victim is blamed either (a) for claiming that a rape or sexual assault has occurred when she was ‘actually’ consenting; or (b) for misleading by ‘sending out the wrong signals’. In both (a) and (b) the victim is presented as dishonest or misleading. Again, this kind of victim blaming may be an element of a (purported) partial excuse, but notice that those who blame the victim in this way can present the behaviour of the perpetrator as entirely reasonable.

In reality though, these very different meanings tend to be equivocated, despite their near-incompatibility.


That bloody dress again – vision and choice in perception and values

I haven’t updated this blog in a while, mainly because of being very busy. I am still very busy, but since I have been gripped by the same thing that everyone is getting by turns obsessed and infuriated about over the past day or so, it seemed worth getting it off my chest.

For some reason, everyone went totally mad over a fairly ordinary quality photograph of a not very nice dress. The reason for this insanity was that people disagreed dramatically over its colour. Some people saw it as blue and black, while others saw it as white and gold. I was closest to the blue and black team, although it was more like a vibrant blue and a dark warm brown colour.

Very quickly, people started offering scientific explanations of the phenomenon. Most explanations put it in terms of a basic contrast effect. When displayed in a particular visual context, different colours appear in different ways. This XKCD cartoon demonstrates the effect.

Now this is part of the explanation, but it doesn’t give us everything that we need to know. Take the famous checkerboard illusion. In this illusion, two squares that are coloured in the image with the same pigment appear as different colours because of the visual context. But with this illusion, pretty much everyone looking at it will perceive it the same way. With the dress, people were pretty close to coming to blows over being contradicted on what just seemed so obviously the colour. Even people looking at the picture in the same conditions disagreed about the colour, so we can’t just put it down to surrounding lighting conditions, the colours of other things on the screen or in the surrounding environment and so on.

We then got other explanations of the difference that referred to stuff going on in people’s visual systems that led them to differ in their colour perception. Different arrangements of rod and cone cells, or different neuronal activity might privilege a certain way of seeing the dress.

It seems that the best explanation is likely to be a mixture of the two, combined with other factors. Certain particularities about the specific configuration of our eyes, our nervous systems and the surrounding environment will all have a role to play. Other things might come into it too: I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that certain moods might incline us to imagine the context as a lighter one or a darker one for example, or that memories of clothes that we have seen or owned might come into it. There are also features about other perceived qualities of the dress. I was eventually able to make the switch to seeing it as a white/gold dress, but only once I started to think of it as much more shiny and satiny in texture than I had previously done.

This is the sort of thing that the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about. In his view, the perception of a quality is not something that happens in isolation. I don’t just see a red, for example, but rather a warm woolly red. Colours are not just colours in the abstract, but they come with textures, smells, occasions, memories and meanings. Perception is a feature of the way that we operate in the world, and the meanings that things have for us. I saw the dress as blue/black when I was imagining it as a matte textured garment that I might squeeze myself into in the morning, with sunlight streaming through the curtains. When I managed (after a bit of work) to see it as white/gold, I was seeing it as a glitzy evening affair that I would put on in preparation for a night out, while my hair was in curlers and I was listening to ABBA. This is a bit of a dramatization because I probably wouldn’t ever wear that dress, but you get the point. Things appear in the way that they do because they have certain kinds of practical significance.

But actually it wasn’t so much the peculiar visual differences around the dress that interested me so much. What intrigued me was quite how mental everyone went about it. Not only was there radical disagreement between people’s visual perceptions, but this was extremely vehement, and people were quite bothered by the fact that other people saw things so differently. People seemed anxious that this was leading them to question objective reality, or the reliability of their senses. Other people flooded to online tests for colour blindness with the conviction that if other people saw things so differently, perhaps there was something wrong with their visual system. The response to the effect seemed very often either to be that either you or I must have some pathology, or the basis of the world that we inhabit is somehow threatened.

This is interesting because people disagree about things on the internet all the time. This is often vehement and entrenched, but it doesn’t usually lead to the same kind of anxiety or questioning. Why not? Probably because most of these disagreements are about politics, aesthetics or ethics. If I say that you need to get your ears tested if you claim not to have enjoyed the latest Björk album (I haven’t listened to it yet actually, but you know) you would not actually think that it was something that you needed to rush to the GP about. If I said that you are wrong in the head for voting UKIP, you probably wouldn’t take that remark seriously (actually, you should). These are value judgments of various kinds, and most people today tend to think about value as subjective: even if our moral, aesthetic or political reaction seems to us to be immediate, obvious or visceral, we won’t usually be surprised that other people don’t see the world in the same way.

Iris Murdoch has an interesting line on facts and values. For her, an ethical outlook is a way of seeing things. People or objects appear to us in certain ways because they matter to us in relevant respects. This is close, in some ways, to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about visual perception: a face, for example, might appear to us completely differently according to the attitude that we have towards the person concerned. There hasn’t been much work, so far as I can tell, on the connections between Merleau-Ponty and Murdoch, but I think there should be. Perhaps that will be my next project.

Another thing that Murdoch talks about is the way in which the classic distinction between facts and values is not as clear-cut as it might first appear. It is certainly useful to make fact/value distinctions in some contexts: for example, it is helpful to challenge people who think that something is automatically good because it is ‘natural’, and bad because it is not. But this approach has its limits. The stark distinction, Murdoch thinks, is itself based on a certain moral take on the world: one that is rooted (she thinks) in Protestantism and Liberalism. Why would we say that? I find the Protestantism aspect a bit harder to grasp (although, informed by my recent viewing of Wolf Hall, I am starting to get some inkling of it) but the liberal bit has two components:

  1. Meaningful discourse must be possible, so we must basically agree on the nature of a public external world that we all inhabit, which furnishes us with ‘objective facts’ that are established through our phenomenal experience.
  2. Disagreement must not be irrational, so ways that things matter or have meaning for us (‘values’) must be private, subjective, and available as choices.

Now, if we live by this kind of framework, of course disagreements about something like the dress will disturb us in ways that disagreements about ethics, politics or aesthetics will not. The ‘objective world’ which we thought that we shared with other people has come under threat.

The dress is an interesting case because (a) it is not set up as an illusion – it isn’t something that has been deliberately set up to trick us, but rather takes the form of the photos that we usually regard as reliable, which makes it more threatening; and (b) many people did not feel that they had any choice in the matter of how they saw it – disagreement seems to make it fit in the ‘subjective’ box, but the absence of choice over how to see it (in contrast with, say, the Necker Cube) seems to make it belong in the ‘objective’ box. The idea that we see things differently, and this is not something that we have any obvious power to change, is understandably threatening to many people.

Interestingly, there seemed in this case to be much more agreement about an aesthetic issue. Most people seemed to be clearly of the opinion that it was a horrible dress. In this case it was the ‘subjective’ issue where there appeared to be the most agreement.

Of course, despite a failure to see the colours differently, we can still come to scientific and philosophical understandings of how the differences come about. Even if we can’t see it how others do, understanding why their perceptual experience might differ from ours might make us refrain from shouting at them that they must be mad, blind or deceitful. And eventually, by trying out different conditions, squinting a bit, and returning to the image, not to mention a bit of imagination, we might actually start to see it differently, even if just for a moment. Here I think the issue of value is no different.

Mill, Wordsworth, Role Models, and Personal Possibilities

I have been spending far more time than is reasonable on an article about John Stuart Mill and William Wordsworth. While a central strand of it has remained constant, the process of writing, rewriting, discussing with colleagues, near misses from journals and more rewriting has transformed large portions of the article. I hope to be getting rid of it towards the end of the month, but maybe this is too optimistic. I had some thoughts about what I am trying to do in this paper that extend to broader ideas about role models and the emulation of others, and particularly to how this might apply to my own situation: a junior woman in philosophy, in regular contact with women who are more junior and more senior.

What happened to Mill is pretty well-known. Short version: he was raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham with the intention of creating the perfect utilitarian theorist. In pursuit of this goal he had a rigorous and rather restrictive education, leading his attention away from such things as art and poetry in favour of the classical languages needed to read philosophical texts, economics, and other disciplines that might be regarded as ‘useful’ to him as a utilitarian thinker, and to society more generally. This may, by the way, put us in mind of certain trends in contemporary education policy, but I’ll save that for another day.

Unsurprisingly, the young Mill suffered from a ‘mental crisis’ in his twenties. His attributes his recovery, in part, to reading the poetry of Wordsworth. Variously, Mill’s crisis is put down to some kind of Oedipus complex, to Victorian repression, to plain intellectual overwork (tell me about it), or to something rotten at the heart of Benthamite utilitarianism itself. Mill’s own interpretation comes closest to the last of these possibilities. He describes the associationist ideas about education associated with Bentham and with James Mill: ‘the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and pain with all things hurtful to it’. Pleasure, then, should be taken in those things which serve a purpose. But what purpose is that? To the Benthamite, there can be only one answer: the maximisation of pleasure. Now the risk here is that we open up a massive regress: pleasure in causing pleasure, which in turn should be taken in causing pleasure, and so on. We are at risk of the bottom falling out of it – if this is all there is, then how can we ever take pleasure in something merely for its own sake? Everything we enjoy might ultimately be experienced as empty and meaningless. This seems to be what happened to Mill – his description resembles very closely a lot of first-person accounts of severe depression, in which nothing of meaning or significance can be found in the world.

So how did reading Wordsworth help? Well, it might be nice for us simply to say that Mill realised, through reading Wordsworth, that daffodils were nice too, not just utility maximisation. But this doesn’t really work. Why, if that were the case, couldn’t he get the same effect just from looking at some lovely daffodils? Mill’s answer was that the sensibilities that were needed to engage with natural beauty in a profound way were lacking in him because of the nature of his childhood education. Nothing could have value for him beyond the valuing response itself, and this had lost its charm. What Wordsworth taught him, therefore, was a certain kind of cultivation of the character – a new way that it could be like to be him. Through revealing how the world could appear for Wordsworth, new possibilities lit up for Mill.

Now, there are problems with this that I won’t bother you with, but an interesting puzzle arises when we ask why it was Wordsworth, rather than Coleridge perhaps, or Shelley, who had this great effect. Looking at things that Mill wrote later on, this seems odd: he describes Wordsworth as an ‘unpoetical’ poet (unlike Shelley) and as a poor philosopher (unlike Coleridge). In a sentence that he later omitted from his ‘Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties’, Mill describes Wordsworth’s attempts at lyric poetry as ‘cold and spiritless’. How, then, might this unlikely candidate have been such a great influence on Mill?

The clue, I think, can be seen if we look to Aristotle, a figure who was very influential on both Wordsworth and Mill. Aristotle’s ethics focus primarily on the idea of cultivation of the character – an element that Mill diagnosed as missing from Benthamite utilitarianism. To live a good life, one needs to become a certain kind of person, and this is a matter of feeling, as well as thinking. We get there through developing the right habits. If we repeatedly act in virtuous ways, we train our personalities such that we become virtuous. But the individual cannot do this in isolation – he (and for Aristotle, it was a ‘he’) had to look to the virtuous man (and for Aristotle it was a man), who he could emulate in order to cultivate the appropriate habits. It is through this emulation and repetition that we develop the right thoughts and feelings. Truly knowing (rather than merely imitating) the right way to respond in given situations, is called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This is not something that can be learned merely through philosophy texts, but through observing, interacting and living.

This gives a central significance to the idea of a role model. This is not something to which Wordsworth was blind, and neither was Mill: you can see a version of the idea expressed through his notion of ‘experiments of living’ in On Liberty, where a free society would allow people to develop new ways of living that would serve as an inspiration to others. One of the points that I want to make in my article is that Wordsworth served as such a role model for Mill: a model of practical wisdom, not of theoretical philosophy. Wordsworth opened up possibilities for taking pleasure in the natural world – pleasure of a kind that had been denied to Mill until this point.

But other poets wrote about natural beauty – in Mill’s opinion many of them better than Wordsworth ever did. So we still don’t understand the poet’s particular importance. A plausible answer to this lies in the very things that Mill identifies as Wordsworth’s weaknesses. In the ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, Mill makes an interesting comparison between Wordsworth and Shelley, maintaining that each is strong where the other is weak: Shelley is all emotion, with flimsy and casual associations of ideas flitting about all over the place. He excites sensations beautifully, but rushes from one idea to the other without allowing the intellectual component to unfold. By contrast, Wordsworth is a thinking poet. While he does evoke vivid imagery and emotion, it is always in the service of thought: ‘what he is impressed with, and what he is anxious to impress, is some proposition, more or less distinctively conceived; some truth, or something which he deems such. He lets the thought dwell in our mind till it excites, as is the nature of thought, other thoughts, and also such feelings as the measure of his sensibility is adequate to supply’. Here Mill thought that Wordsworth was lacking. His feelings, and his expression of them, were not of sufficient power and depth to describe him as having a poetic nature.

Mill’s education, even in his downcast state, had allowed him to form associations of thoughts, to engage intellectually with associations of ideas, to turn them over, pick them apart and analyse them. What Wordsworth demonstrated for Mill is how one might grow feelings, insipid as he later deemed them to be by comparison to Shelley, from such unpromising soil. It is the very thing that made Wordsworth ‘unpoetical’ that enabled Mill to see some hope for someone in his own situation, and from his educational background.

An important lesson to take from this is that when we search for our models of phronesis, the striking people from whom we can emulate practical wisdom and learn about how to live, we cannot look for saints or superheroes. We need to find people who can show us that certain things are possible for us, with our self-perceived limitations and weaknesses.

In her fantastic essay ‘Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Iris Marion Young argues that while men typically understand the world around them in terms of practical possibilities for action, women and girls are typically raised in such a way that they see it in terms of an absence of possibility for them. The standard way of relating to the world is not then so much an ‘I can’, as an ‘Others can, but I can’t’. We see obstacles, limitations and danger where we see those same environments as a source of practical possibility for others.

But perhaps through role models, one can start to see the ways in which things are not just possible, but possible for someone like us. For Mill, engaging in the world, valuing it, taking pleasure in it, all seemed impossible until he was shown a way that it might be done by someone who was, in relevant respects like him: limited, ‘unpoetical’, stunted by theory, and (in his later opinion) almost insipid.

A recent study of mentors in academia demonstrated that while in many cases female mentors had a positive effect on the self-esteem and career development of their female mentees, in some cases, counter-intuitively, they seemed to have a negative effect. In these cases, the mentors projected an image of themselves as highly-efficient, confident, and untroubled by a lot of the inner and outer barriers that afflict women in academia. They were demonstrating that what they were achieving was possible, but their mentees did not feel that it was possible for them.

Knowing this does not automatically help. The culture in academia (and in academic philosophy especially) is one in which it is very difficult for women to show any weakness. If we demonstrate a lack of confidence in our ability to do the job, share our imposter syndrome, reveal our feelings of ‘I can’t’, we feel (with some justification) that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what Mill and Wordsworth’s story reveals is that for someone to serve as a model of how things might become for us, they have not only to demonstrate what is possible, but also show how it is possible for someone like me, with all of my limitations, fear and doubt.

The politics of moral dilemmas

This morning I have been mostly overthinking an XKCD cartoon. Here it is.

The cartoon has raised some criticisms on feminist forums. The problem that people have identified with it is that it suggests that the poor guy is stuck in this impossible situation, and not meeting the love of his life, because women are so confusing. Darn those women, if only they could make their minds up about whether they wanted strangers to talk to them or not.
I think this is a little unfair on the cartoon – I see it as raising a genuine problem, rather than necessarily perpetuating it. There are various ways that you can read a rather sparse little comic strip like this, but we do not have to draw the moral that the man is a victim of those confusing women. Rather, we can say that we live in a culture where there genuinely is no right answer about how he should behave (although there certainly are plenty of wrong ones). This is not the fault of the woman in question, or of women in general, but rather the fault of background conditions under which women, as sexual and human beings, might welcome human contact for various reasons, but under which they are also prone to feel intimidated or objectified by a random approach from a man, no matter how well intentioned. Whether an advance is welcome or unwelcome is so dependent on the particular situation that the man is not always going to be able to read it successfully, and the woman herself may well feel conflicted. This is made all the worse by the fact that men are socially expected to make the advances, but (for the same reasons) men often make advances that are unwelcome, or even commit acts of sexual violence and intimidation. Like it or not, scenarios like this one are not just exchanges between two individuals, they are conditioned by the background norms of behaviour. This can lead to impossible choices.

But it is important to remember that there are much more significant impossible choices than this one: should I heat my home or feed my family? Should I choose a career or children? Should I feel trapped in my home or risk sexual assault? Should I suffer violence and oppression, or fight it with violence and oppression? Should I fight the oppressors, or care for those who are dependent on me because they are oppressed? All over the world, people are forced into situations where there is no right answer to these questions, only wrong ones. There are other situations where we face less troubling questions that have no right answers: ‘do I buy a second car or a second home?’ might be one example, or ‘shall I order the moules mariniere or the pan-fried sea bass?’ These are nice choices to have, even if there is no system for determining the answer, and importantly, there are only right answers, rather than (as in the previous examples) only wrong ones.
Moral philosophers often like to think that there is a formula for determining the right thing to do. If you are faced with a decision like this, you apply whatever your well-tested formula happens to be, do what it says, and then you have done no wrong. This does not reflect our experiences in situations like this. I do not believe that any theory is always going to present us with an unproblematic ‘right’ course of action. Sometimes there just isn’t one.

In the cases where there are only wrong choices, this often (but not always) stems from political injustices. Heating one’s home or feeding one’s family is only a meaningful question in situations of poverty. When people are faced with that choice in wealthy countries like the UK, this could have been prevented. The choice between a career and children is most often a genuinely troubling one for women.

If we believe that genuine moral dilemmas of the kind that I have been talking about are troubling and conflicted cases, this might present us with a case for saying that the prevention of them is a central concern of politics. Of course, there will always be some unavoidable situations with no right answers, and learning to deal with these is an aspect of moral maturity, but these situations should not be inflicted on people in gratuitous and radically unequal ways. Many political theories emphasising choice seem to overlook the fact that market-based accounts of freedom tend to create these situations. ‘Choice’ becomes a watchword of the advocates of freedom: the luxury of choosing between the mussels and the fish may be a lovely thing, but in what sense is the choice between starving or freezing either a good or a reflection of freedom?
Political institutions concerned with liberty ought to be in the business not just of maximising the choices that people can make, but in making these choices meaningful ones that do not place people in situations of unnecessary irresolvable conflict.

Should the guy speak to the woman on the train? I have no more idea than he does, and because of that, he ought to do what he can to bring about a society in which women are equal and not subject to objectification and intimidation. If he acknowledges that, then I think we are right to feel sorry for him.

Fracking: Science, Myth and Virtue

Fracking seems to be the big environmental story of the year. Today, two news reports which appear to lend support to conflicting sides of the argument have emerged. One story told us that the economic benefits of fracking may be much less than previously thought, and that gas prices for the consumer will be minimally affected. The other story tells us that a report conducted by the Royal Society for the Department of Environment and Climate Change tells us that the carbon footprint of fracking would be similar to that of other ways of extracting fossil fuels. There is no contradiction between the reports, but they provide ammunition for different points of view.

At a speech at the Royal Society in London, Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary, said  “You would be forgiven for thinking that it represents a great evil; one of the gravest threats that has ever existed to the environment, to the health of our children and to the future of the planet. On the other side of the coin, you could have been led to believe that shale gas is the sole answer to all our energy problems … Both of these position are just plain wrong. … Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal.”

Consequentialist Arguments

It is interesting that earlier in the debate, much of the opposition to fracking was voiced in terms of its capacity to cause earthquakes. Later, after reports suggested that fracking would cause only very small amounts of seismic activity, the argument shifted to other environmental threats, such as pollution of air and groundwater, and the effect that new sources of fossil fuels would have on climate change. It is also emphasised that fracking is a relatively new and unknown technology, which may have grave long-term risks.

I do not want to undermine any of these arguments. There is growing evidence to support many of the claims about groundwater pollution, and there is a good case that the availability of more fossil fuels is likely to undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Purely in terms of probable consequences, there are good reasons to think that we should not support fracking.

However, when the debate is only had on these terms, it easily leads to a situation where the opponents of fracking are caricatured (as Davey caricatures them in his speech) as the prophets of doom, clinging to their views even in the face of empirically researched, rationally disseminated evidence. The earthquake argument didn’t work, so we found a new danger to focus upon.

The debate is conducted along very crude utilitarian lines, weighing up the costs and benefits to humanity and proceeding according to the best scientific evidence. If it turns out that the evidence comes out against fracking, we decide not to do it, and if the costs turn out to be outweighed by the benefits, then off we go. If we take this approach seriously, there really is very little space for activists and politicians in this argument at all. However much they do their homework, they are amateurs compared with the scientists, engineers, seismologists, geologists, economists and ecologists who really know their stuff. This would suggest that there really is no moral argument to be had here, or at least the moral aspect of the matter is taken care of by a simple formula in such a way that the right way to proceed will become obvious when, and only when, the scientific evidence is in.

Myths versus Science

This rhetoric is typified in the frequent use of the language of scientific fact versus myth. Davey’s speech is entitled ‘The Myths and Realities of Shale Gas Exploration’. He outlines the purpose of the Royal Society report as being that the Royal Society should “make recommendations to ensure exploration in the UK could proceed safely and extraction be managed effectively; Recommendations based on the scientific evidence to ensure that the way forward is informed by fact and not by myth.” He elaborates further on this theme later in the speech: “our society is ill served when we allow myths to proliferate or when we allow debates to be hijacked by zealots or vested interests. So, today, I want to make the calm, rational, objective case for shale gas exploration in the UK in the light of the three equal and overarching objectives I have as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.”

What does Davey mean by myth? It seems that he is using it partly in the usual colloquial sense of meaning bad science, and in this case bad science that is driven by ideological concerns that are not themselves amenable to scientific proof. To some extent Davey is right. It is indeed dangerous when people fabricate scientific results to fit their ideological concerns, and present their own dogma as justified by science, alleviating them of the responsibility to justify their position. More on that in a bit, but first of all I want to point out that the word ‘myth’ gets an unfairly bad treatment in this sort of rhetoric.

Myths, in the traditional sense, are not a pernicious or badly conducted form of science, aiming imperfectly at the truths that science can pinpoint much more effectively. Myths are a different sort of thing altogether – they are fictions, that we know are fictions, and which have a tendency to stick around in the public consciousness. In addition, most myths, folk tales, fairy tales and other stories of these kinds are not based on consequentialist thinking. We do not criticise the myth of Oedipus because we suspect that it is not factually true, and nor do we slate the fairy tale because in actual fact, it is a biological impossibility for a prince to turn into a frog and back again. We know very well the difference between myths and science, and yet we continue to be attracted to the former. Why would we still be fond of myths when science can tell us all that we want to know about the composition of the physical universe? It is because myths are not about truth in the scientific sense, but rather about the sort of psychological meanings that we draw from them, many of these moral.

Myth and the Moral Imagination

These meanings do not work simply by way of a crude symbolism that makes their morals easily translatable into less opaque language, although a lot of contemporary notions of them seem to proceed as though that is the case. I don’t think that we can say for example, as some people try to, that the moral of Prometheus is simply that if you meddle with mighty powers beyond your understanding, then you will inevitably face some horrible punishment. If that were all that was going on, why wouldn’t you just say that in the first place, and why wouldn’t we then run some kind of scientific investigation to determine whether it is actually the case? Rather, the myth expands the complexity and sophistication of our moral imagination. We are initially invited to sympathise with Prometheus as the man who champions humanity in the face of tremendous unknown powers. We experience his tragedy with him, and reflect on his punishment: do we feel that it was deserved? is such a punishment invited by such behaviour? How does Prometheus’ ultimate fate reflect back upon our initial sympathies with him at the start of the tale? What does the punishment tell us about Prometheus’ character, motivations and desires? The ending of the tale is not a statement of the inevitable effects of human meddling, but instead serves to complicate our feelings about Prometheus’ character and actions, and ultimately about our own. It helps us to grow and develop as human beings.

There is a great deal of academic writing on this by people who are a lot more qualified to speak about it than I am, but it is important to remember that utilitarian thinking was not a dominant force in the world where this myth developed. Of course, the hearer of the myth would know that he who defies the Gods in such a story will inevitably fall, but they also know that they are hearing a story, and will witness people around them who ‘have it coming to them’, but are not ultimately punished. The consequence has significance for the hearer because of what it teaches us about human attitudes – not least our own – and not because it is the inevitable effect of a certain action.

A Missing Dimension

This kind of meaning that can be drawn from myth serves a different role from the facts that we derive from scientific enquiry, and is a vital part of our moral education and development. It is also a dimension that appears to be lacking from the current arguments about fracking and other current political issues. Blinded by narrowly consequentialist thinking, there is little space to think about the attitudes and motivations behind actions and policies. I suspect that it is not too much of a stretch to say that some of the ‘prophets of doom’ are actually motivated by the thought not that fracking will bring inevitable calamity upon our heads, but that such calamity would be deserved or appropriate. Judged by scientistic crudely utilitarian criteria, this view is nonsense. Where is the scientific evidence for desert and appropriateness?

To look for evidence is to take the wrong approach. Science cannot provide us with ethical justifications for particular attitudes or courses of action unless we already have some idea about the best way to live. Instead we should ask ourselves when and how it became acceptable to say things like: ‘yes, but they’re only tiny little earthquakes.’ It is remarkable that ‘fracking’, a word irresistibly reminiscent both of non-intimate sexual acts, and of various acts of violence, came to refer to ‘the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure’ (OED definition) and that the word actually has its origin in the oil and gas industry. To come up with the word (even, as it originally was, without the ‘k’) to refer to such an activity, without realising that one is inviting trouble, demonstrates either a casual attitude towards violence, or a view of the Earth as nothing more than an inert cupboard of resources that is not susceptible to violence or harm.

This dimension, based as it is on virtue, vice and character, is not explored in the current argument. Instead, the debate is solely conducted according to what the science tells us. The science, however, can only ever tell us about means, and not about ends. Science does not tell us what is virtuous or vicious, permissible or impermissible, what attitudes we should take towards economic growth, technology and the natural world. To do that, we need to think for ourselves, not to ask somebody else. Myth, then, is not the problem, although the bad science sometimes labelled as myth can be. What is really at fault is the idea that scientific findings, on their own, can tell us what to do, and that any other considerations are nonsense.

When we think like this, any myths that we want to smuggle in have to be disguised as science, and once this is done, they are no longer our responsibility, but are farmed out to unelected experts. The notion of economic growth dogmatically presented as an unequivocal good takes this form, and disguising it as a scientific truth of economics means that there is no space for the autonomous self-reflection that might lead us to question this view.

Let me tell you the story about the King who wished that all he touched turned into gold…

Freedom is Slavery.

One of the most pernicious assaults on rights and liberty is to put the concepts of rights and liberty themselves in the hands of the anti-perfectionist corporatist political right, who model all rights on liberty, and all liberties on freedom of private ownership. This doesn’t just threaten rights and freedoms: it bleeds all meaning from them, and makes their realisation impossible.

A liberal, libertarian or neo-liberal theory is perfectionist if it takes sides about the nature of human flourishing, anti-perfectionist if it does not. Compare, for example, Mill and Rawls. Mill held that there were better ways for human beings to live and associate, even if he, from his individual outlook and historical position, could not exhaustively characterise what that was.  This idea, based on bringing about a better world through individual and social moral progress, was the cornerstone of his liberalism, which he took to be compatible with socialism.  Rawls, by contrast, aimed to create a political theory which eschewed any fundamental role for an account of human flourishing – all conceptions of the good (at least, those that could be held within broadly liberal western democracies) were to be taken as equally valid in the construction of his political theory, with none privileged above any other.

The problem with the latter type of theory is that it takes itself to be essentially above and independent of particular individuals’ notions of the good. It is purportedly value neutral, in that it claims to take no value as more significant than any other.  This is a little like a mid to late twentieth-century trend in ethics, which held that moral philosophers themselves made no moral judgements, but instead merely described the structures and forms of moral judgement itself.  When an anti-perfectionist liberal theory is combined with a notion of choice that is modelled on consumer choice arbitrated by the ‘invisible hand’, this undermines any notion of meaningful or valuable choice, and hence of liberty itself.

Any dissenting voice, any attempt to live life differently, is cast as just another instance of consumer choice, reduced to nothing more than its exchange value.  Of course, such a translation is possible, and according to the rules of translation applied, it is not false. However, what it does is strip all the meaning from the original.  Once dissent is understood in such terms, we are told nothing about the nature of the dissent, only something about the logic of capitalism.

No way of living can be better than any other: revolt is just the selection of an alternative brand, no more meaningful than picking one kind of margarine over another.  It is no threat to the system, because it is transposed into just another non-distinctive mode of existing within it – a different colour, rather than a different form.

On the rare occasions that the almost-silenced voices are genuinely and correctly heard, the call for freedom is recast as an assault on freedom, and the demand for rights as a violation of rights.

Rights and liberty have not, historically speaking, always belonged to capitalists. Nor have ‘liberty’ and ‘socialism’ generally been viewed as contradictory. Rights and liberties have been appropriated and distorted. It is important then that we do not take an anti-capitalist position to be a position that is critical of rights and liberties, but rather one that makes them mean something beyond the capacity of the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.

Locke on property: what belongs to me, and where I belong

What do philosophers of mind and divorce lawyers have in common? They both make money from arguing about other people’s properties.

Pretty lame joke, I know, but it plays on two distinct usages of the same word. We can talk about the properties of objects (their attributes, qualities or characteristics) or about the political and economic notion of property, in the sense of what is owned or possessed. Philosophers are concerned with both senses of the word, although the philosophers concerned with each one don’t talk to the philosophers concerned with the other as much as they perhaps should.

Property in the latter sense is most often discussed by political philosophers. One of the famous figures in the canon is John Locke, whose account of property ownership has influenced figures as diverse as Jean Jacque Rousseau, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Robert Nozick.  Locke is responsible for the now notorious ‘labour mixing’ view of property.

The labour mixing argument is supposed to answer a simple but tricky puzzle. Humans have not been around since the dawn of time, and did not come into existence with private entitlements to bits of the world already doled out, so how things move from a state of not being privately owned to being the property of some person or other?

This is what Locke says:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.’ (Second Treatise of Government, section 26)

This argument is often spelled out like this:

1. I own my body


2.            I own the labour of my body.

3.            I can come to own something by mixing what I own with what I do not yet own,


4.            When I mix my labour with something unowned, I come to own the finished product.

This has raised all manner of criticisms. For example, why suppose that I can come to own something by mixing it with what I already own rather than dissipating my property? Also, what is meant by mixing my labour with something? Labour here seems to be something of an abstraction, while the thing is sitting there for all to see – is there some sort of a category error going on there? And how do we explain this seemingly magical process of coming to own things? Some have explained this in terms of the idea of adding value to what was originally there, and this has led to a labour-mixing theory of value hotly debated, and largely maligned, by contemporary economists.

But the bit that I am interested in here is the first premise: do I actually own my body?  It is a common assumption in some circles that I do.  For example, bodily self-ownership is taken to be a central element of liberal feminist arguments about reproduction.  It also plays a central role in many arguments against slavery: nobody else can claim possession of my body, or any other aspect of my being, because I can only belong to myself.

Once we look at this a bit closer though, it seems as though our normal use of the notion of private property doesn’t do a very good job when it comes to the relationship in which we stand to our own bodies. In legal and political theory, a property right, like many other rights, is usually analysed as a complex bundle of entitlements, prohibitions and privileges.  In front of me right now are the remains of an Aero chocolate bar, which I own. My ownership of it means that I can use it, consume it, break it up, surrender ownership of it to others (my partner has been eyeing it longingly) or sell it for profit (which I might do if I were in a bad mood with my partner).

Things to which I have private property rights stand at some distance to me, and can be surrendered or transferred through legal or conventional processes.  This, for most legal and political theorists, is part of what it means to have a property right over an object.  This does not describe, in any serious way, the intimate relationship in which I stand to my own body or person.  This is one of the reasons why recent arguments comparing rape to theft, and more generally crimes against the person to crimes against property, don’t even begin to get to the heart of things.

Looked at like this, it seems hard to see how the Lockean argument can get off the ground – it seems that it is false from the outset.

But it would be wrong to assume that Locke is stupid, and as with many historical texts, it is best to look beyond our crude reconstruction of his argument to what he actually said, and the historical and linguistic context in which he was saying it.

The (pretty poor) joke that I used at the start of this piece would have been even less funny in Locke’s day, the reason being that the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘property’ that it relies on were far less distinct.  Locke does not say that I own myself, or my body, but rather that ‘every man has a property in his own person’.

The notion of having a property in one’s own person relates to ownership, but is also to do with having a sort of unity or integrity conferred through one’s properties.  This explains why the ‘property in one’s own person’ is such a significant idea: it expresses the idea that the integrity of the person should be respected, that they should be treated as a person rather than as a mere thing.  Having a property in one’s own person means that one cannot be put to use by another (enslaved, exploited etc.)

By mixing one’s labour with something, Locke seems to be suggesting that one makes that thing an extension of oneself.  This does not seem to be such a crazy idea.  When we work in a place, toil on a piece of land, craft an object, cook a meal, or simply walk regularly in a park, there is a sense in which we incorporate elements of our external environments into our identities, just as we become incorporated in the identity of the object or place with which we interact.  This helps to explain why the spaces that we occupy and the objects that we create are not merely externally and arbitrarily related to us – they come to have an integral significance to the nature of the self.  Things that once seemed meaningless can take on new meanings and speak to us in different ways in virtue of the roles that they play in our projects and activities.

Sometimes institutions of private property and monetary exchange can be tools to safeguard the significance of such things, and give us a kind of autonomy over them.  Equally though, money and private property, like other mechanisms of power, can rob places and objects of the significance that they have for people by making them fungible objects of exchange, or by placing them in the hands of those who stand at a distance to them and do not share the intimate relationship that we have with them (Locke’s thought was used to justify enclosure of the commons, although James Tully has forcefully argued that Locke was opposed to imposing such measures on people by act of parliament).

Locke’s argument then does seem to get us somewhere, although perhaps not as far as Locke would like, and certainly a very long way from the views of many of Locke’s contemporary advocates, who would appear fairly alien to Locke himself. He begins with a premise about personal self-identity, rather than personal self-ownership, and thus fails to explain how the whole bundle of entitlements, privileges and prohibitions associated with private property arise.  What he does give us is an extension of the notion of identity beyond the bare individual understood as wholly separate from the world that she inhabits.

Locke can help us think about the significance of objects – and particularly places – to human lives.  People and places cannot be shifted around like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to solve logistical and economic problems.  This helps us to articulate how a park became the focus of resistance to autocratic oppression in Turkey – it is not an arbitrary sign.  It also explains some of the injustice of the bedroom tax, whose implementation treats the absence of private ownership as justification for the uprooting of people from the environments and communities to which they belong.  It is almost invariably those who are poorest and most vulnerable who are subject to such treatment in their countries, homes and places of work and rest.

‘Belonging’ is a concept that brings us closer to the more ambiguous sense of ‘property’ that was around in Locke’s day.  You cannot simply overlook where we belong, just because where we belong does not belong to us.

Yucky Girly Nature

This is one of those needing-to-get-something-off-my-chest posts, or to put it a more gendered way, one of those things-that-get-on-my-tits posts.

Something that I have come to notice in a few discussions lately (in academic articles, conference papers and on internet discussion forums – it gets everywhere) is a particular identification of women with nature. Of course, this is not a new thing – it has been around for thousands of years. I have been seeing it come up in order to make points supposedly in support of feminist ideas, and also in support of pretty silly anti-feminist ones that should have been consigned to the dustbin quite some time ago.

So let’s get something straight – as a woman I do not have privileged access to the secrets of life. Having a vagina, breasts and a womb does not put me in touch with the sacred feminine. I do not experience time as cyclical rather than linear because of my innate closeness to natural rhythms, and nor does my possession of these organs grant me access to any special sphere of mysterious empathy with my fellow creatures that is inaccessible to those fellow creatures who have sticky-outy bits where I have sticky-inny bits (hmm, maybe best to leave the stickiness out of things).  Just as a man does not automatically have a brilliant adeptness in the fields of culture and logic, I do not, in virtue of my gender or biological sex, know something mystical about nature and intuition that a man does not.  If I started talking about a rarefied form of sacred knowledge that a man cannot express, but uniquely feels through his bollocks, that would not be sensitive and respectful to men, it would be creepy and weird.  So let’s put away the tambourines and have a bit of a think before we all sign up to the cult of the sacred vagina.

Please do not be tempted to try to resurrect this stuff in the name of reifying the feminine: it does none of us any favours, and if you take the bits of it you like, you may have to put up with the crappy bits of being on that sort of pedestal – it often has pretty uncomfortable implications for reproductive rights for example.  If you begin any sentence with ‘As a woman…’ it had better be a good one, and most sentences that begin that way are not.

I am not alone in thinking that this stuff is really problematic. I think most people in mainstream liberal western cultures would take a similar view.  The response will tend to be that this is some bizarre mystical hogwash, that it is unnecessarily gender-essentialist, that we could have pretty much any arrangement of fleshy bits and pieces in our pants, but that none of this implies any particular connection to nature. Best then to treat everyone equally as cultured, active, free citizens, and leave all this woman-nature stuff well alone.

Well yes and no. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to simply cut off a whole bundle of fairly deep-seated cultural associations which are not going to untangle and shift themselves quite as easily as that.  The thing is that there has been a tendency, going right back to a fair bit of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, and probably earlier, to discard a lot of the things that we don’t like about ourselves into a box marked ‘natural’ and ‘feminine’ (yucky and girly).  Into the yucky and girly box go our biological natures, bodily change, mutual dependence, the fact our actions are often more constrained than we would like them to be, the fact that our emotional lives can be messy and confusing, and so on.  Once these things are in the yucky and girly box, we can shut the lid and pretend to be supremely powerful rational agents who, in our most essential natures, are free from all the inconvenient stuff.  So to open the box and invite the girls out, provided they don’t bring any of the yucky girly stuff with them, is not going to solve the problem (even if this were something achievable).  It expects women to conform to an image of masculinity that never served men particularly well in the first place, and which they could only maintain through a correspondingly implausible image of femininity.

These are some of the central issues concerning ecofeminism.  I have never particularly liked the term – ‘Ecofeminist’ sounds like a distinctly irritating and self-righteous superhero – but the concerns behind ecofeminism are important and fascinating.  It is through unravelling these associations (the same ones that lead to the female personification of nature, and phrases like the ‘rape of virgin forests’) that ecofeminists attempt to unpick the psychological and cultural associations between the idea of dominating and oppressing nature, and the idea of dominating and oppressing women.  In doing both, human beings are attempting to oppress and deny elements of themselves with which they are deeply uncomfortable.  Ultimately both are a form of self-harm that is dangerous and unsustainable.

Draft of a Conference Paper on Future Generations

This is slightly more technical than stuff that I normally put up, but I think it is still more or less followable. I’ll be speaking on this next week at a conference on Environmental Ethics.

I was unsure about whether to post this in advance, but figured that it is a work in progress anyway, and would benefit from constructive criticism before or after the event.

Parfit’s Glass Tunnel: Time, Identity and Intergenerational Justice.

This paper has emerged as the result of a crisis that I had when I was working on my PhD a couple of years ago.  One particular chapter, on future generations, tied my brain in knots and occupied me for far longer than it should have done, and at the time I didn’t see quite why.  What I want to do today is expose the root of this problem, which I believe is one that affects moral philosophy quite broadly, but for reasons that will become clear becomes much more acute when we think about intergenerational justice and obligations to future people.  For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Derek Parfit today. I do this not because he is the worst culprit, but because I think he goes wrong in more interesting ways than many people maintain.

At the heart of the issue is a particular approach to doing ethics generally, whereby a set of properties are identified that make a being worthy of moral consideration, or moral consideration of certain kinds.  These properties are, as it were, pre-ethical, but they need to be picked out in order to assign moral status.  This approach is nicely outlined by Simon James in his book The Presence of Nature:

According to what I shall call the standard approach, normative ethics (environmental ethics included) proceeds as follows. One begins by identifying what it is that marks a being out as worthy of moral consideration. Then one determines which kinds of being possess it.  … the epistemological task of determining what kinds of being there are with what kinds of properties can and should be carried out independently of ethical considerations. … the epistemological part of the procedure is carried out without reference to ethical considerations: it is, one might say, purely epistemological, just as the ethical part is purely ethical.

The tendency is to suppose that the role of the ethicist is to sort out the applications of values once the metaphysical and scientific facts of the matter have been firmly established.  It is only once the solid immovable architecture has been put in place that the ethicists can be called in to argue about the colour of the curtains.  In terms of future generations this tends to play out as follows (apologies to those of you who are allergic to philosophy in this style).

We begin by examining the claim:

C: There is (or will be) some person (or people) a at time t+1, such that we have obligations to a at t.

C is usually accompanied by one or more of the following presuppositions:

1.            a does not exist at t.

2.            a’s existence (and identity) is contingent on decisions made at t.

3.            at t, a has no properties (usually taken as equivalent to what can be truthfully predicated of a).

4.            Moral status or moral considerability is contingent on a given set of properties, either actual or potential.

Assessments of C are made in order to assign truth values to claims about obligations to future people, or to consider whether such claims are truth-apt.  This underpins Parfit’s approach, as well as Thomas Schwartz’s rejection of obligations to future people, and many endorsements of such obligations.

The metaphysical task we are now confronted with, in order to see if the claims of C are borne out in the world, is extremely daunting (and this is what accounted for the hair-tugging PhD crisis).  In order to engage seriously with this question, we need to have answers to issues concerning the unity and persistence of personal identity, counterfactuals, actuality and potentiality, the metaphysics of time and the nature of properties.  A lot of work in this field has very little to say about these issues, often borrowing language from debates in metaphysics and epistemology without fully exploring it, despite the fact that when employing this approach, the whole result of the enquiry could hinge on these matters.

Parfit, however, is far from being guilty of a lack of engagement with metaphysics, and this is what makes him one of the more interesting writers on this topic, even though I think that this approach ultimately causes him problems. Reasons and Persons is probably best known for its articulation of the non-identity problem and other issues affecting our moral dealings with future generations, but in fact this is only one late section in a book that not only covers ethics, but also personal identity, temporal change and epistemology.  In fact, it seems likely that the case of future people is singled out not only as an important moral issue in its own right, but because it presents interesting puzzles at the point where he sees the intersection between metaphysical and epistemological matters and ethics.

I don’t want to rehearse the non-identity problem in detail to a room full of environmental philosophers, but the basic issue relates to the fact that decisions that we make now (about things like population policy, for example) will affect which individuals will come into existence in the future, such that had a different decision been made, the future would be populated by a completely different group of people.  This means that no future individual will be able to claim correctly that they have been harmed (or benefited) by the decision, since they would not exist in the alternative future scenario.  It might then be claimed that there are no obligations to future people, since there are no determinate people for whose sake we are making these choices (note how this roughly corresponds with the ‘standard’ approach to ethics outlined at the start).

Parfit does not claim to have a fully worked out solution to the non-identity problem, but he is not happy to accept the notion that we do not have obligations to future people, and he gives some indication of how he thinks a solution would have to go.  He suggests that to deal with the problem adequately, we must adopt an ‘impersonal’ approach to ethics, which is not concerned with the identities of specific individuals, and can therefore make comparisons between the life of one possible person, and their counterpart or counterparts under another possible future scenario.  In this way, we can preserve the notion of having an obligation to bring about the best future state of affairs without worrying about the fact that the act of bringing it about will affect the identities of the people who partially constitute it.

Given this line of approach to the problem, it is a little surprising that Parfit has gained the sort of reputation that he has among those of us who are ethically committed to the view that we should have moral concern for future generations, and in fact this is quite harmonious with the wider approach to personhood that he expresses elsewhere in the book – an approach which, at least on the surface, seems extremely amenable to certain kinds of ecological consciousness.  Parfit challenges the idea that there is a determinate metaphysical answer to be found to the question of what ensures the continuity of personal identity, thus loosening the grip of a rigid notion of the separate self.  This allows a greater sense of continuity with both the presently surrounding world and community, and with things that occur beyond the boundaries of the individual’s lifetime.  Here is Parfit’s own description of the conscious realisation of this loosening of the boundaries of the self:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

This fits very well with his impersonal approach the non-identity problem.  Once the significance of individual selfhood is eroded, the matter of distinct future individuals being harmed or benefited becomes less of an obstacle.  We might see some comparisons here with certain strands in Buddhist ethics, where the attachment to an unchanging ultimate self in a world characterised by change and impermanence is regarded as a cause of suffering and selfishness.  This sort of realisation could be seen as a positive transformation if we are to have greater concern for wider communities, for non-human nature, and for what happens over timescales that transcend the individual lifetime.

So why is there a problem here? To start with, I want to be clear that I do not want to put Parfit back in his glass tunnel.  The liberation experienced in finding oneself less cut off, more intricately involved in the lives of others, is something that has a great deal to recommend it.  At the same time, though, there are reasons to be somewhat suspicious about the way that Parfit goes about this.

We might imagine an overwhelming sense of relief that the metaphysics works out after all.  As it turns out, we don’t have to abandon our deep-seated moral convictions.  The critique of the permanent unchanging self is vindicated, and with it our sense that we are not living in un-splendid isolation.  We could imagine an alternative scenario in which Parfit is convinced, against his prior commitments, that actually such-and-such an account of personal identity has won out, and we need to abandon the notion that we can have any coherent obligations to help people who will live after we have died.  It wouldn’t necessarily just be personal identity that could throw such a spanner in the works – let’s suppose for example that we come up with an account of the metaphysics of time that make our obligations to the future incoherent, for example, a radical metaphysical presentism that reduces all talk of past and future objects, properties and events to nonsense.

The problem here seems to relate to the fact that Parfit’s approach is radically unsituated.  The ‘standard approach’ to ethics outlined by Simon James describes just such a third-person view of the relationship between ethics and metaphysics.  We begin by removing ourselves, our own values and commitments, from the picture, asking how the world ‘anyway is’ when we are not in the thrall of value, and then tries to reintroduce that value further down the line.  It is a way of thinking about time and space that bleaches all meaning out of it, and then tries to paint it back on at the end.  We remove ourselves from our particular standpoint, our own commitments and relationships, and feel surprised that we can’t see the value in the world.  As Bernard Williams remarks:

Parfit can convert the metaphysical into the practical so easily, I suspect, because the view that he takes of the practical, and of experience in general, is throughout the book so radically external. Philosophically speaking – it is not true of his literary allusions – he sees everything from the outside. … his neglect of the first-personal view, in the theory of personal identity as in his earlier discussion of one’s need to induce certain dispositions in oneself, leaves a gap. When we think how the argument is to be understood and applied, a dimension is missing.

The notion that ethics has to be approached primarily as though through the eyes of an impartial observer suggests that we have a deficiency because of our spatial, temporal and personal situatedness.  We need to imagine the world as it would be without these obstacles.  But in fact, it is this situatedness that makes moral life possible, and insulates us against the cruelties that could occur through thinking our dealings with others must depend on an objective metaphysic.

But where does this leave us in terms of Parfit’s glass tunnel?  There are two distinct questions here: firstly, is a situated approach psychologically egoistic, and secondly, how are we to relate this to our idea of the self?

 On the first question, it might be maintained that to take the situated view will return us to an isolated state that promotes both egoism and anxiety.  On the specific issue of future generations, it might lead us to be attentive only to those with whom we share a common life.

Typically in other spheres of normative ethics, questions of this sort are well countered by emphasising notions such as care and attentiveness.  The notion of a relational ethic is brought to the fore (e.g. Simon James, Iris Murdoch, Nell Noddings etc.) There seem to be some specific difficulties with this when we are considering future generations.  Whereas in our encounters with other people, with non-human animals, with plants and so on, we can commit ourselves to attentive interaction with them, where we participate in shared activities, this is not possible with members of future generations.  In the cases that Parfit is discussing, there is no overlap between our lives and theirs.  We cannot watch their lives unfolding or engage in any kind of mutual responsiveness.  They are always at arm’s length, and to some extent abstractions.

The points discussed in the non-identity problem re-emerge here, since it is not just the unknown-ness that creates an issue, but also the indeterminacy of future people.  There is, from our perspective, no solid fact of the matter about what sort of people they will be, how and where they will live and so on, and these things – insofar as we can know them at all – will slip and slide in our imaginations as we consider different possibilities about how to act.

I think this is not so much of a problem as it first appears.  Being the age that I am, many of my friends are currently busy making babies.  Much of my old undergraduate circle is in a whirl of scans, knitting, DIY and excited conversations about anticipated children.  It is certainly the case that, at this stage, the genetic identities of their children have been determined.  It is also true that in some instances the prospective parents know some facts about their future children – their biological sex for example, or whether they will be twins.  Nonetheless, a great deal about them – their personalities, the world that they will grow up in – is largely undetermined and largely unknown.  Many factors could intervene and send them on a different course.

Nonetheless, it does not seem irrational, or a wild leap away from our normal moral concepts, to say that a form of moral care and attentiveness is at play here.  In fact, the indeterminacy helps to shape the nature of the attentiveness concerned.  The anticipation of a new baby is coloured by the knowledge that an inconceivable range of possibilities about them are still open, and the care involved includes ensuring that many of the fulfilling possibilities remain.  It may be that, similarly, while the lack of determinacy of future individuals presents us with limitations, it also helps to shape the appropriate moral response.  Non-identity becomes a moral consideration, rather than a problem.  In this way, viewing future people from our own perspective does not necessarily confine us to an egoistic exclusive concern for our contemporaries.

But this brings us to our second question: what happens to the self when we view matters in this way?  On one hand it seems that what is being considered is outward-looking and expansive, allowing us to reach imaginatively beyond our individual temporal grasp, but on the other, to abandon the third-personal approach might be seen as putting us back into the glass tunnel, where there is a determinate self which is the locus of moral deliberation.  Could this be an egoistic account after all?

Parfit’s erosion of the self is reliant on a metaphysical account, not on a moral life as it is lived.  As we have seen, this creates problems if we hold that our strong commitments can be derailed by an unexpected twist in the ontological track.

The same commitment to a third-personal metaphysic as the basis of his account conceals from Parfit how the self is, as far as our lives and relationships are concerned, not just one person among many.  If this were the case, treating it as our indispensable standpoint would be a kind of egoistic bias.  The self does not emerge as particularly significant because it is regarded much as we regard others, just with special privileges. Rather, it is the background against which anything can have significance or value.  The first person perspective is a perspective on the world, not a look in the mirror.  It is our means of living in a world of value, and to eradicate that perspective is to eradicate that value.  In this sense, retaining the self does not confine us to our isolated glass tunnels – it is the reason for our identification and closeness with others.

Both this conception of the self, and the way that we think about our temporal relationships with others may, for what it’s worth, turn out to be ‘illusory’ given a certain notion of ontology, but this hardly seems to be significant.  As Bernard Williams points out:

If time’s passage is an illusion, so is the flow of time apparently involved in action and deliberation themselves; relative to the metaphysical truth of the matter, the whole enterprise of practical deliberation, and all the various principles that might be brought to it, would alike have to be bracketed. If time’s passage is an illusion, we live that illusion, and finding out that it was an illusion would not provide us with a reason for deliberating in one way rather than another within it.

The beauty of Parfit’s approach is that it allows him, as he puts it, to ‘live in the open air’ and therefore to grant himself moral concerns that extend beyond his individual lifetime.  We inhabit a social and political climate where this kind of un-selfing is increasingly needed, both for present and future generations. An egoistic attachment to the self as the main focus of the individual’s concern needs to be challenged, and Parfit evokes very beautifully the liberation that this challenge can afford. His mistake, and my mistake when I was anxious about my PhD thesis, is to suppose that we need to wait for a value-free third-person metaphysical theory to take us there.

Tackling extremist hatred – one battle, many questions

Since the horrific attack on Lee Rigby, a flood of opinion has been unleashed. We have seen a truly frightening backlash in the form of Islamophobic comments, attacks on mosques, and to date two large marches by the far-right group the EDL, each attracting over a thousand people. Every day more analysis spills out, blaming the rise in extremism of various kinds on one factor or another.  I’ve felt overwhelmed, not seeing where to begin.  Many responses are one-dimensional, but when I try to smooth out the bumps in their carpets, new ones pop up elsewhere. This is enormously fraught, and it is hard to say useful things about it without coming out with stuff that will cause grave discomfort somewhere or other. Please bear that in mind as I look at some of the stuff we have seen.

First off, there was this article by A.C. Grayling:

Not everything that Grayling talks about here is wrong.  It is quite right that a rigid attachment to dogmatic principles is responsible for people doing appalling things.  It can create a sense of justification for the most cruel and bloodthirsty actions.  There are huge problems with what Grayling says here though, quite apart from being pretty offensive to anyone with any religious beliefs.  Firstly, there is an error in logic that I would call up a first year undergraduate on. Part of his reasoning appears to be:

1. Murders are committed by people in an abnormal state of mind.

2. Religious belief is an abnormal state of mind, therefore:

3. Religious beliefs are responsible for murder.

I don’t think I’m going to dignify that with a response, I’ll just leave it up there for you to marvel at.  A second problem is that Grayling takes the abnormality in question to be a failure of rationality, and it is the irrationality of religious faith that causes the problem. I don’t know about you, but the fact that I do not go around committing bloodthirsty murders has less to do with my rationality than it does to do with the fact that I am sickened by the thought of causing grave suffering to other people, and I think this is probably the case for even the most hard line Kantian or Platonist.

Nonetheless, it would be daft to say that religion has nothing at all to do with this – of course it does – the killers themselves were obviously wrapped up in a particular religious worldview, no matter how twisted and distorted a picture of Islam it was. There are a lot of twisted pictures of the world that cause people to dehumanise other people and behave in appalling ways, including the notion of Englishness espoused by the EDL (I’ve written about this elsewhere). So what is it that leads people to adopt these pictures?

An important element of this relates to the social and economic situations that people inhabit.  David Lammy wrote an interesting piece on this for The Guardian, although similar arguments are made elsewhere:

Lammy talks about an alienated and disenfranchised population of young men, who, disillusioned by having been forgotten by the societies that they inhabit, are vulnerable to bewitchment by extreme views of the world, whether those are in Islamic extremism, street gangs, or the EDL.

As Lammy presents it, this is too simplistic.  It does not account, for example, for why such young men will follow one dangerous path rather than another (by leaving aside the issues of religion and of geopolitics, for example, Lammy conveniently clears himself of the charge that his vote in favour of the Iraq war was any kind of contributing factor in the London 7/7 bombings).  But there is a great deal in what he says.  There do seem to be a large disenfranchised group of young men, particularly working class young men, who are alienated in British society.  This shows itself in membership of extremist groups, gangs, rioting and football hooliganism, but also in disproportionately high rates of suicide.

This is sometimes articulated as a ‘crisis of masculinity’.  I don’t like this because it suggests a universal crisis afflicting all men and resulting from the supposed total emancipation of women.  It is a small step from talking in these terms to suggest that ‘the pendulum has swung too far’ in terms of gender relations, and that now we have to look out for the poor men who are groaning under the shackles of female oppression.  The rise in extreme movements of the EDL variety has gone alongside an increase in embittered men’s movements that seek to blame feminism, and often women, for all the ills of the world.

Nonetheless, when feminist issues are raised, some very reasonable concerns about male identity, particularly issues afflicting men at the very bottom of society, are often derided with ‘oh noes what about the menz’. If feminists simply turn their backs on this issue, the alienation of young working class men will be blamed on the heedless middle-class feminist movement, and the suggested solution to this will be that women need to get back to their traditional roles. This problem affecting young men is equally a problem for women, since it creates precisely the conditions under which rape, domestic abuse, and violence against women thrive.  Unless we want to risk more women being subjected to living with men possessed by the clear hatred and aggression expressed by the EDL, we need to take this seriously.

The tendency here is not to make the link between gender and, say, social class and the distribution of property and resources.  Where feminist goals are pursued in a way that is overbearingly middle class in its focus, with no aims to improve the general conditions of those who are least well off in society, it will mean a shift of power and resources where power and resources are scarce and hard to come by in the first place.  In these conditions it is easy to instigate a ‘battle of the sexes’ that feminists didn’t want in the first place. Those who want to perpetuate the economic status quo are best off if they collude in blaming feminism, rather than having to give anything up themselves.  This means that feminism has to be alive to broader social and economic issues, and yes, to problems specifically afflicting men in certain demographics.  Equality of the sexes within an oppressed social group is not enough, and it is liable to lead to a lot of angry and alienated men who will seek an expression of this through violence and extremism of various forms.

(If anyone doubts the significance of social class here, it would be instructive to watch this frankly rather frightening propaganda video by the EDL, which portrays their ‘victimisation’ as the result of being ignored and marginalised by a middle-class elite:)

There is another (related) reason why gender is significant here.  Recall the sinisterly polite words of one of the Woolwich murderers: ‘I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.’  Meanwhile, the EDL, in the video that I link to above, attack British Muslims on the grounds that ‘they rape our women’.  The imagery and language called upon both by Islamic extremists, and by many extreme nationalist movements, treat women as the territory to be fought for.  The EDL constantly present images of women in Burkas as their chief symbol of something alien to British life.  Women must be fought for, defended, protected, but not fighting, active or speaking.

The symbols of nationalism and many political ideals are frequently presented as feminine. Consider, for example, Plato’s ‘noble lie’ in The Republic:
‘the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth’

The land, or the political cause in question, is presented as feminine (think about Justice, Liberty, Britannia, etc.) and those defending her are male.  The feminine is passive and in need of masculine protection.  These ideas are what makes it so powerful for the EDL to call upon what has been done to ‘our women’, contrasted to the Woolwich murderers’ ‘our women’.  To suppose that this is only a male problem is to ignore the role of women as the inert but sacred landscape for which the ideological battles are fought.  This is not a case of the pendulum having swung too far, it is more to do with a troubled and complicated set of gender relations whose roots are ancient in origin.

I am not claiming to know the answers about what accounts for the horrific murder in Woolwich, or the disturbing backlash from the political right, and I only picked out a few things here about which I think I have some sort of ability to speak. All I know is that if we are going to unite against racism, fascism, violence, terrorism and oppression, there is not going to be a simple answer.  It is not going to be solved by looking only at the oppression of one group by another, or at class conflict, or at religion or geopolitics.  None of us as an individual is able or qualified to see the whole way through this minefield.  To do this we need a multitude of voices from all communities to try and work at this huge fucked-up tangle together. To that end, please be tolerant if I have said anything that offends.