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Free Speech on Campus: Winning the Debate

In Freedom of Expression, Philosophy, Students on February 2, 2015 at 9:20 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on January 28th 2015, 9:16 am

In order to win the hearts and minds of the campus censors, their sympathisers, and the waverers, it is not going to be enough to win the political debate: the philosophical debate also has to be won. Appropriating a term used in a different context by Sophal Ear, the Standard Total Academic View (STAV) on free speech has to be defeated on its own terms. And that STAV is against free speech.

Philosophy courses, women’s studies courses, gender studies courses, and other courses are recommending academic books, many of which are well argued, that promote either legislative restrictions on free speech or civil remedies by allowing those deemed “harmed” by racist speech or pornography to be able to sue for damages.

To mention a few important STAV writers, the late Joel Feinberg wanted offence to others to be restricted by the law. He formulated his “offense principle” as follows:

It is always a good reason in support of a proposed criminal prohibition that it would probably be an effective way of preventing serious offense (as opposed to injury of harm) to persons other than the actor, and that it is probably a necessary means to that end.

Feinberg summed up his own formulation more succinctly: “the prevention of offensive conduct is properly the state’s business.”

Jeremy Waldron is another STAV writer. He makes an appeal to political liberals by invoking the highly regarded twentieth century liberal philosopher,John Rawls. Rawls imagined a “well-ordered” society “in which everyone accepts, and knows that everyone else accepts, the very same principles of justice.” He declared that in such a society “the coercive powers of government are to some degree necessary for the stability of social cooperation.” Waldron accepts that Rawls would have opposed laws that restrict free speech. Nevertheless, he uses what he calls a Rawlsian framework and asks “What does a well-ordered society look like?” He believes it is one where the “public good” that people have their dignity assured exists.

Contra Feinberg, Waldron does not think that offence to others should be legally proscribed. In what he accepts is a difference with a “fine line” he believes that laws that restrict attacks on dignity can be justified. He states:

…not dignity in the sense of any particular level of honor or esteem (or self-esteem), but dignity in the sense of a person’s basic entitlement to be regarded as a member of society in good standing, as someone whose membership of a minority group does not disqualify him or her from social interaction. That is what hate speech attacks, and that is what laws suppressing hate speech laws aim to protect.

One of the most prominent STAV writers in favour of restricting speech, whose arguments need defeating, is Cambridge University’s Rae Langton. In 2013 Langton was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Last year readers of Prospect magazine voted her the eighteenth most important thinker in the world. And this year she will deliver the prestigious John Locke lectures at Oxford University.  In one of her own books, in numerous articles, in online recorded conversations, in various colloquia, and in her submission to the Leveson Inquiry, Langton has banged her drum against pornography and hate speech.

Langton has drawn on the work of Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor and anti-pornography campaigner, and fused it with an argument used in a different context by the late J.L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher noted for his work onspeech acts. By doing so she argues that “certain speech acts can subordinate certain social groups, when they unjustly rank a group as inferior, deprive them of powers and rights, and legitimate discrimination against them.” In herargument, pornography both subordinates and silences women. By subordinating women it “presents a conflict between pornographers’ right to liberty and women’s right to equality.” By silencing women a conflict is created “within liberty itself, between pornographers’ right to speak and women’s.” It is a convoluted argument but she has a number of acolytes marching to her beat.

It is not enough to simply cite the American First Amendment or harp on about the importance of free speech. Winning the debate against those that use the STAV mantra requires more than that because doing so does not effectively respond to someone referring to perlocutionary and illocutionary speech acts. To properly win the debate, one has to demolish the arguments of the would be censors. The debate has to be won on their terms.


Thought Control Would Be Nice

In Philosophy on January 13, 2015 at 6:23 PM

Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (The Abbé de Mably) was an 18th Century French philosopher and friend of the better known Rousseau. He detested private property and his view of liberty make many modern day authoritarian types seem positively liberal. Below is a paragraph extracted from a lecture that Benjamin Constant gave to the Athénée Royal of Paris in 1819 entitled, The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns

The abbe de Mably, like Rousseau and many others, had mistaken, just as the ancients did, the authority of the social body for liberty; and to him any means seemed good if it extended his area of authority over that recalcitrant part of human existence whose independence he deplored. The regret he expresses everywhere in his works is that the law can only cover actions. He would have liked it to cover the most fleeting thoughts and impressions; to pursue man relentlessly, leaving him no refuge in which he might escape from its power. No sooner did he learn, among no matter what people, of some oppressive measure, than he thought he had made a discovery and proposed it as a model. He detested individual liberty like a personal enemy; and whenever in history he came across a nation totally deprived of it, even if it had no political liberty, he could not help admiring it. He went into ecstasies over the Egyptians, because, as he said, among them everything was prescribed by the law, down to relaxations and needs: everything was subjected to the empire of the legislator. Every moment of the day was filled by some duty; love itself was the object of this respected intervention, and it was the law that in turn opened and closed the curtains of the nuptial bed.

On Trolleys, Bazookas, and Faulty Reasoning

In Jewish Matters, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on November 30, 2014 at 8:59 PM

The so-called trolley problem, which single handedly appears to have kept a generation of moral philosophers in a job, is now well known. The problem, simply put, is why the intuitions of many as to the correct course of action differ between the following two cases which I have paraphrased from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1985 paper, “The Trolley Problem”:

Bystander at the switch

An out of control train is headed down a track and is on course to kill five people. You are an innocent bystander standing at a switching point.  If you flick the switch, the train is diverted to a spur track. The five people will be saved but unfortunately, there is one person tied to the spur track and he will die. Should you flick the switch?

Fat Man

An out of control train is headed down a track and is on course to kill five people. You are an innocent bystander standing on a footbridge over the track. Next to you, standing precariously on the edge of the footbridge, is a fat man. If you give the fat man a little push he will fall onto the track and his weight will stop the train and hence prevent the five from being killed. Unfortunately, the fat man dies. An act of self-sacrifice such as jumping off the bridge yourself would not work as your own weight is not sufficient to stop the train.  Should you push the fat man?

Much on the literature on this problem is to try and explain and justify the authors’ views, in line with the intuition of many, why it is acceptable to kill one to save five in Bystander at the switch but not acceptable to kill one to save the five in Fat Man.

However, Judith Jarvis Thomson had a paper published in 2008 entitled “Turning the Trolley” where she admitted that she had changed her view. She now thought it wrong to flick the switch in Bystander at the switch. She constructed a new thought experiment that I paraphrase below:

Bystander’s Three Options

An out of control train is headed down a track and is due to kill five people. You are a bystander standing on a left hand spur. There is also a workman on right handed spur track. Your three options are (i) do nothing in which case five people die, (ii) flick the switch to the right in which case the only person who dies is the workman on the spur, or (iii) flick the switch to the left killing yourself and no one else.

Thomson reasons: “I hope you will agree that choosing (ii) would be unacceptable on the bystander’s part. If he can throw the switch to the left and turn the trolley onto himself, how dare he throw the switch to the right and turn the trolley onto the one workman?” She goes on to explain that self-sacrifice is not required: “[A man] may let five die if the only permissible means he has of saving them is killing himself.”

It is this version of one of the many trolley problem thought experiments that is taken up by Howard Nye in his paper: “On the Equivalence of Trolleys and Transplants: The Lack of Intrinsic Difference between ‘Collateral Damage’ and Intended Harm,” just published in the December 2014 issue of Utilitas. (Sadly, the link requires a subscription. It is not free to access.) Nye explains that he was convinced that Thomson’s Bystander’s Three Options was equivalent to his own thought experiment below:

Bazooka Holder’s Three Options.

You, Bugsy and the five are tied to three parallel trolley tracks, and empty trolleys are heading down each track. You have a bazooka with only two rounds, giving you three options: (1) blow up the trolleys heading towards the five and Bugsy, in which case only you will die; (2) blow up the trolleys heading towards the five and you, in which case only Bugsy will die; or (3) blow up the trolleys heading towards Bugsy and you, in which case only the five will die.

The problem is that these examples are not similar enough. There is a key moral difference and it has to do with the acts and omissions doctrine. This should not be elided without reasoning. These differences can be noted:

  1. Doing nothing in Bystander’s Three Options mean five people die, whereas doing nothing in Bazooka Holder’s Three Options means seven people die. This option of doing nothing is not noted by Nye as one of the bazooka holder’s three options. Doing nothing is noted as an option by Thomson in Bystander’s Three Options.
  2. Five people dying and no one else dying in Bystander’s Three Options results from doing nothing. The five people dying and no one else dying in Bazooka Holder’s Three Options results from the bazooka holder doing something: choosing to save himself and save Bugsy.
  3. Only one person (not the bystander) dying in Bystander’s Three Options results from doing something that kills the man on the spur. Only one person (not the bazooka holder) dying in Bazooka Holder’s Three Options results from the bazooka holder doing something to save the five and save himself. The Bazooka holder lets Bugsy die, he does not kill him.
  4. Only the bystander dying in Bystander’s Three Options results from the bystander committing suicide. Only the bazooka holder dying in Bazooka Holder’s Three Options arises from the bazooka holder choosing to saving six other people and letting himself die.

These differences are important. It is a well established relevant moral fact that there is a difference between killing a man and letting him die. It is crucial in many areas, notably the debate on euthanasia. It is also important in law: the difference between killing a man (drowning him in a river) and not saving his life (a bystander with no special duty of care not throwing a lifebelt to a drowning man) is the difference in countries such as England and America between going to prison for many years for murder or manslaughter and getting off scot-free.

Recall that Thomson argues that a man “may let five die if the only permissible means he has of saving them is killing himself.”  In response, Nye states:

It is indeed plausible that it is wrong to force a cost on someone if she isn’t morally obligated to assume it. There are, however, cases in which we do seem permitted to do things that result in someone’s bearing a cost that she would not be obligated to assume herself. We seem permitted, in cases like Bazooka Holder’s Three Options, to save ourselves rather than Bugsy even though Bugsy would not be required to save us rather than himself.

This is problematic because Nye has not made a comparable argument. In Bazooka Holder’s Three Options, if the Bazooka holder chooses to save the five and himself it is not what the Bazooka holder has done that results in Bugsy “bearing a cost” (dying). Bugsy dies because without any action on the Bazooka holder’s behalf he would die anyway.  Bugsy has no positive right that the Bazooka holder should save him.

While the five in Bazooka Holder’s Three Options also have no positive right to be saved, let us assume out of the goodness of your heart, you, the Bazooka Holder, used one of your bazooka rounds to save the five. If so, we are now left with the following problem.

Bazooka Holder’s Three Options (Revised)

You and Bugsy are tied to parallel trolley tracks, and empty trolleys are heading down each track. You have a bazooka with one round.  You have three options: (i) do nothing in which case you will both die, (ii) blow up the trolley heading towards yourself, saving yourself and letting Bugsy die, (iii) blow up the trolley heading towards Bugsy saving Bugsy and letting yourself die.

This revised problem is morally equivalent to the following:

Jug of Water

You and Bugsy are journeying through the desert and you have a single jug of water. You have three options (i) Share the water with Bugsy in which case you will both die as there is an insufficient amount to keep you both alive, (ii) give the jug of water to Bugsy such that he survives and you die, (iii) drink the water yourself such that you survive and Bugsy dies.

Some readers may be familiar with this version. It predates Judith Jarvis Thomson’s trolley problem by nearly two millennia. It arises in a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura on Leviticus 25:36. The answer to Jug of Water, according to Rabbi Akiva and Jewish law, is that you are not required to give up your own life so another might live. “Your life becomes before the life of your fellow man.” This is contrasted with a different Talmudic problem: Can a man threatened with death kill another man to save his own life?  The answer, according to the Jewish tradition, is no: “who shall say your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours.”

The point of me providing these last examples is not to promote Jewish ethical values, but to demonstrate that even in ancient times it was recognised that there is a moral difference between killing and letting die. This difference explains a crucial differential between Bystander’s Three Options and Bazooka Holder’s Three Options.

Machiavelli on Necessity, Fighting, and Fear: Comment by Leo Strauss

In Just War, Philosophy on November 2, 2014 at 2:32 PM

In his Discourses on Livy (Book III, Chapter 12) published in 1531, Niccolò Machiavelli argues that a prudent military commander must impose on his troops an absolute necessity to fight. He quotes Livy who refers to fighting through necessity as the “ultimate and most powerful weapon of all.”  The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss, commented on this very eloquently in his book, Thoughts on Machiavelli, (The University of Chicago Press, 1958). I found his argument so well made that I thought I would copy it below. (From pages 247-8).

[Machiavelli] gives some indications of what he understands by “such necessity” as make soldiers operate perfectly. To speak here only of Machiavelli’s primary examples, soldiers fighting against a superior enemy operate perfectly if they have no choice except to die or fight; they cease to operate perfectly if they can achieve safety by flight or surrender. To be driven by necessity means here to have no choice except to die or fight; for to have this choice means to have no choice at all since men are compelled by nature to try to avoid death; fighting is chosen because it is the only way in which in the circumstances certain and imminent death could possibly be avoided: the choice of fighting is imposed by necessity. If the soldiers can save their lives by flight or surrender, they choose flight or surrender as offering a greater prospect of avoiding death and as requiring a much smaller effort or as being easier. Fighting as well as flight or surrender aim at the same end, namely, the preservation of one’s life; this end is imposed, as we may tentatively say, by an absolute and natural necessity. If the enemy makes impossible flight or surrender, fighting is imposed on the soldiers in question as the only possible means to achieve the end mentioned. On the other hand, if the enemy gives them the opportunity to flee or surrender, flight or surrender is imposed on them as the better or easier means to achieve that end. Yet in the latter case, we do not speak of necessity prompting them because flight or surrender are easier than fighting, i.e., because they go less against the soldiers’ natural inclination. We shall then say that the necessity which makes soldiers fighting against a superior enemy operate well is the necessity, rooted in fear of death, to act against their natural inclination but within their ability. Generalizing from this, we may say that it is fear, the fundamental fear, which makes men operate well.

I think Machiavelli, as interpreted by Strauss, has made a compelling argument.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 2. Recipients and beneficiaries

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:51 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place July 30th 2014, 11:55 am

This is the second post in a series of three responding to the arguments made in favour of reparations for slavery by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. The first post can be seen here.

As I commented in my last post, Boonin argues that “the U.S government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.” One of David Horowitz’s objections to slave reparations is that “Most Living Americans Have No Connection (Direct or Indirect) to Slavery.” He explains “The two great waves of American Immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What logic would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans[,] Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims to Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?”  Boonin answers this question with a valid point:

When you freely choose to become a citizen of a country, that is, you incur a duty to help your country fulfil all of its obligations, including those obligations that it occurred before you arrived. This includes having some of your tax money go to paying off a national debt that you had nothing to do with generating, paying to fund programmes that were adopted before you were born, and so on.

One could compare the idea of immigrating to a country to that of becoming a new shareholder of a corporation. When someone buys shares in a company he takes on, in his stake, his share of the liabilities of the company. If the company borrowed money for thirty years by issuing a bond five years earlier, the new shareholder cannot simply write off that debt: he takes on the obligation. This is a reasonable argument. If the US government does owe a debt to its black population then Boonin’s response to Horowitz’s objection as it stands seems valid. But Boonin creates a new problem for his argument.

I will assume that some immigrants into the United States since the end of slavery have not simply been the groups that Horowitz mentioned, but has also included, either in or out of those groups, some black people. By Boonin’s argument these new black immigrants should also pay their share of “the national debt.”  This is not a problem. What is the problem is that Boonin argues that “compensation is owed not to the biological offspring of particular victims of previous injustices, but rather to black Americans who continue to suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.” Because Boonin argues this, he would have it that, as an example, a new black immigrant to America whose family had lived, as an example, in the United Kingdom for generations is due compensation. But this is a nonsense: not only is this black immigrant not descended from American slaves, neither he nor his family have suffered the effects of American slavery or racial separation – for the simple reason that they never lived in America.  In order for Boonin’s argument to hold water, he must explain why such an immigrant is entitled to reparations. He has not done so.

In my final post on this matter I shall discuss what I will call the individual rights based objection – the idea that an African American should not be treated as part of a collective of African Americans but as an individual.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 1. Causation

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:40 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 29th 2014, 1:48 pm

In 2011 Cambridge University Press published philosopher David Boonin’s book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. Chapters 2 and 3 of the book deal with the idea that America owes slave reparations to its black population. In 2001 the conservative commentator David Horowitz wrote Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too. Horowitz’s points were published as a one page advertisement. In chapter 2 of his book, extending over some 53 pages, Boonin responds to Horowitz critically arguing against each of them.  In chapter 3, at 58 pages in length, Boonin extends Horowitz’s points and comes up with further arguments in favour reparations only to knock them down, too.  His position is that “the U.S. government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.”

Boonin believes his argument is both “coherent and defensible.” This is the first of a series of three blog posts to attack points of Boonin’s arguments. In this post I deal with the causal claim. In the next post I deal with the payments and beneficiary issue. And in my final post I shall deal with what I will call the individual rights argument, against Boonin’s collectivization of the black population. It is in these three posts that I hope to demonstrate that Boonin’s arguments are unsound.

The Causal Claim

Boonin defines the causal claim as “the acts by which previous generations of American citizens wrongfully harmed previous generations of Africans and African Americans continue to cause harmful consequences for black Americans today.” He admits that this claim is “absolutely essential” to his argument: “if the past wrongful acts involving slavery and its aftermath are not currently exerting any harmful influence on the present generation of black Americans, after all, then the compensation principle won’t entitle the present generation of black Americans to any compensation because there won’t be any damages to compensate them for.”

He believes that “black people in the United States today, on the whole, are disadvantaged relative to white people” and he has tried to seek an explanation. He rules out genetic differences as “thoroughly discredited within the relevant scientific communities” and concludes that it therefore must be differences in the social environment “that makes it more difficult, on average, for black Americans to flourish.” With no evidence whatsoever, Boonin makes a leap: “The most obvious candidate for such a difference by far is the existence of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. And so the most reasonable conclusion to draw, on this account is that slavery and its aftermath do, in fact, continue to exert a negative influence on the life of Black Americans.”

David Horowitz argued that the economic adversity suffered by many black Americans does not arise from the lingering effects of the slave trade but from “failures of individual character.”   Boonin responds, again with no evidence, but just because he cannot think of any other explanation: “if black Americans really are more likely to suffer from failures of individual character than are white Americans, this discrepancy must be due to the lingering and discouraging consequences of slavery and its aftermath.” Boonin cites John McWhorter, who argued that the reason why black students did not try as hard as white students is that they “belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain” and “defeatist thought patters.” Shelby Steele is also cited for the claim that the reason for the respects in which black Americans on average lag behind white Americans is that they “internalize a message of inferiority.” Finally Dinesh D’Souza is cited for the claim that black Americans have “destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behaviour.” For exactly the same reason, i.e., he cannot think of anything better, Boonin attributes the reasons for any cultural factors leading to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans to the legacy of slavery and its aftermath.

It is fair to comment that Boonin does make an appeal to authority. He states that McWhorter, Steele, and D’Souza all “endorse the claim that the American legacy of slavery and its aftermath is at least in part to blame for the rise of a dysfunctional black American culture.”  Such an appeal to authority does not seem impressive. One could presumably just cite other writers such as Horowitz who would dismiss such a claim.

In 1865, with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery officially ended in the United States. It had been made illegal much earlier on in many states. Boonin argues that if there are any cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans that lead to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans today, these can be traced back to the way different black people were treated in America up 150 years ago and perhaps even further.

My argument against Boonin is this. If he is right that a black person today can be culturally affected by the harmful treatment of a different black person say 200 years ago, then why stop there? Why not go back to a period before slavery? Boonin has simply not considered that cultural behaviour might have much longer roots and date back from a period of time before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. I am not saying that this is a reason for black Americans not doing as well as white Americans. What I am arguing is that Boonin’s argument has failed. His reason for blaming the academic and financial underperformance of black Americans on slavery and its aftermath is not that he has evidence that this is so, but that he has ruled out other factors such as genetics. The world did not begin with the discovery of America. Boonin seems not to have even considered this fact.

In my next post I shall deal with the payments and beneficiary problem.

Combatants and human shields: some inchoate thoughts on the ethics of war

In Just War, Philosophy on July 14, 2014 at 5:17 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s  Place on July 10th 2014, 2:25 pm

The ethics of war, as we tend to understand it in the West, is handed down to us through the Catholic tradition. Just War Theory is broken down into two important areas (using pretentious Latin names) – jus ad bellum(legitimate reasons to go to war) and jus in bello (legitimate actions in war). For this post I am considering the actions in war: jus in bello.

There is a rule that is widely accepted and built into the Geneva Convention: non-combatants have immunity from attack. The term “non-combatants” tends to be used as opposed to “civilians” as it encompasses, as examples away from civilians, prisoners of war, army chaplains and army doctors who also cannot be deliberately targeted.

The Catholic tradition has built into it something known as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). This doctrine differentiates between what is intended and what is foreseen but unintended. Consider the following: a combatant from Ruritania fires a missile into a city of Boldavia with the deliberate intent of killing Boldavian non-combatants (civilians). This is clearly prohibited by the Just War Doctrine. It breaches the idea that non-combatants are not to be deliberately targeted. Now consider the Boldavians. Fed up with missiles being fired into their cities targeting civilians they fire a bigger missile back specifically at the Ruritanians’ missile factory. When doing so the Boldavians foresee that not only will they destroy the missile factory as intended, but they will also realistically kill some civilians who happen to be in the area. These civilian deaths are foreseen but unintended. Using a standard military euphemism, they are “collateral damage.”

A way to think of the differences between the two cases is that the Ruritanians will feel they have wasted a missile if they have not killed Boldavian civilians whereas the Boldavians would be delighted if there were no civilians killed when they destroyed the Ruritanians missile factory. The deaths of the civilians is a bad consequence of the Boldavian action not an intended one. The Doctrine of Double Effect sets out the conditions that allow these foreseen but unintended bad consequences. The key points being that the bad effects are not intended, the act itself was a good one (eg destroying the missile factory) and that the foreseen bad effect is proportional. What is and what is not proportional can be in practice a hotly disputed matter.

Now consider human shields. I will break them down into two types: non-voluntary human shields and voluntary human shields. A non-voluntary human shield is simple to comprehend. It could be, for example, a child who is kidnapped and tied to the front of a tank, or patients in a hospital from which missiles are being fired. It is in breach of the ethics of war to use such human shields. Doing so should be seen as a war crime. But does this mean that the use of such human shields prohibits the targeting of a building used in such a way? The answer, in standard war ethics, can be found by applying the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Imagine the Ruritanians are firing not very accurate or powerful missiles into Boldavia from the roof of a hospital that contains one hundred patients. The Boldavians could destroy that missile capability but to do so they would also destroy the hospital foreseeing the deaths of the patients. If, as said, the Ruritanians’ missiles are not very accurate or powerful and, in practice, strike terror into Boldavians as opposed to killing them, it seems disproportionate for the Boldavians to target the Ruritanians’ hospital missile base. However, if the Ruritanians’ missiles get more and more powerful and more and more accurate, then targeting the hospital missile base might well be justified as it could be proportional. Consider, in the extreme, that the hospital missile base contained a nuclear missile that could wipe out a city of millions. The hospital patients’ immunity from being killed by a legitimate military action by the Boldavians is greater the more ineffective the Ruritanians’ missiles are.

Voluntary human shields are a different case entirely. Imagine Ruritanian civilians who answer a plea from a Ruritanian military general to sit on the roof of a building that contains military weapons. The purpose of them sitting on the roof – they understand. They are to be human shields whose mere presence is to deter the Boldavians destroying the building. I wish to argue that because they voluntarily respond to a military call they cease being non-combatants and become combatants. To explain further. Imagine Ruritania has a population of one million with 50,000 combatant members of its army. They have 1,000 missile bases. In advance of any military actions the head of the army puts out a call and asks for volunteers to sit in or near these military installations. Imagine 20,000 volunteer to do so. These 20,000 people, I would argue, become crucial to the military strategy of the Ruritanians. Because of the nature of their role I take the view that it should ethically fail: the human shields become combatants and not non-combatants and are thus they lose their immunity from attack. The proportionality requirement is relaxed. Boldavians do not need to be as concerned if voluntary human shields seated on the roof of the missile store lose their lives in an attack on the missile store if the missile store is a legitimate target.


It has been brought to my attention on Twitter by Mugwump that my views on the differing treatment of voluntary versus non voluntary human shields are not original. They are in line with Yoram Dinstein’s interpretation of international law. These views were published in his book, The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict, (Cambridge University Press, 2004) pp.130-131. The relevant pages can be accessed freely via Google Books, here.

The Socialist Idea Refuted

In Libertarianism, Marxism, Nozick, Philosophy on June 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Book Review

Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.

In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.

While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.

A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses.  Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”

In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant.  The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.

Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”

Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.

Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 4 – Lava

In Epistemology, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on January 18, 2014 at 8:17 PM

And some wonder why it is called the ivory tower:

Suppose that the mountain erupts, leaving lava around the countryside. The lava remains there until S perceives it and infers that the mountain erupted.  Then S does know that the mountain erupted. But now suppose that, after the mountain had erupted, a man somehow removes all the lava. A century later, a different man (not knowing of the real volcano) decides to make it look as if there had been a volcano, and therefore puts lava in appropriate places. Still later, S comes across this lava and concludes that the mountain erupted centuries ago. In this case, S cannot be said to know the proposition.


Alvin I. Goldman, “A causal theory of kn0wing,” in Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske (eds.),  Knowledge: readings in contemporary epistemology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.21.


In Animal Rights, Philosophy on July 18, 2013 at 5:18 PM

A philosophical question is if it is not morally acceptable to kill another human and eat it, on what grounds can we kill non human animals and eat them? Are we guilty of “speciesism,” the characteristic of which is an unjustified prejudice against other animals? Speciesism can be compared to racism, an unjustified prejudice against other races, or sexism, an unjustified prejudice against a different sex. Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, believes that  many people are  unjustifiably speciesist. A different prominent philosopher, the late Bernard Williams, an opponent of utilitarianism, believes it not to be so. Both Singer and Williams use aliens to make a related  point.

Peter Singer, (Practical Ethics, [Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2011], p.68) appears unhappy that we might identify as members of the species Homo-sapiens and would prefer it if we identified as “self-aware beings” or, perhaps, “sentient beings.” He comments. “Personally, I would feel that an intelligent alien with whom I could communicate and share feelings would have more in common with me than a member of my own species who is so profoundly disabled as to be unable to have any conscious experiences at all – even if the latter looked much more like me.”

Bernard Williams, (Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, [Princeton University Press, 2006],pp.149-152) implies that if aliens land on earth and wished to live with us, whether they look like us or whether they are slimy and disgusting, “opponents of speciesism [would] want us to join them— join them…on principle.” In his fantasy, such people, presumably Singer included, would be the “collaborators.” Against them would be the “resisters,” those “organizing under the banner ‘Defend humanity’ or ‘Stand up for human beings.'” It is a question of whether people can be loyal to other human beings. The question to ask is “Which side are you on?”

Considering these two positions, I think I would fall into Bernard Williams camp. The nearest real life event to any of these fantasies that comes to mind is when Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, played the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue at chess in the mid to late 1990s. At that point in time I desperately wanted Kasparov to win.  The reason for wanting Kasparov to win was because “he’s one of us.” Perhaps I am prejudiced in favour of humans, but I am not convinced that this is unethical.