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May 02, 2010

U.K. General Election #voteplato Poll Update

Well, this is all proving very interesting and things are heating up nicely.  With just over 3 voting days to go to elect an alternative Cabinet of Philosopher-Rulers, over 100 different philosophers have been nominated and the race is on for the key posts.  Mill is still in the lead for PM, with Spinoza, Hayek, Aristotle, Bentham, Bernard Williams and Sue James also in the running.  Socrates leads for education and Hypatia for Science (with David Armstrong not far behind).  Hume and Hobbes are battling it out for Home Secretary, with Sorell  and Parfitt also in the mix, and there's a classic tussle between hawks and doves in Defence, with both Clausewitz and Russell in close contention.  Rawls and Locke are both showing strongly for Attorney General, though Philippa Foot is making a late run.   Amartya Sen is a possible for Chancellor, Zizek, Benjamin and Adorno for Culture.  Adam Smith and Marx are in a hard-fought battle for Business and Industry.  Bookchin looks promising for Environment and Zeno - of course - leads for Transport.  The earliest philosopher nominated is Heraclitus, and current philosophers include Sen, Zizek, Chomsky, Dworkin, Walzer, Tom Sorell, Raimond Gaita, Tim Williamson,  Sue James, David Armstrong, Onora O'Neill, Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Joan Tronto, Judith Butler and Seyla Benhabib.

So do keep continuing to post your nominations - either on the blog or on Twitter using the hashtag #voteplato.  Voting closes on May 5th and the results will be announced on Election Day.

And then I'm off to take part in the Philosophers' Football Match on May 9th www.philosophersfootball.com Wish me luck and PLEASE tell me the offside rule ...


December 24, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 3 (Plato's Contribution)

Amongst other things, Mandelson wants University Degrees to be more directed to contributing to the economy.  It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for there to be a public debate about how publicly-funded Universities contribute to the public good.  Nevertheless, three questions immediately occur:

1) How is 'economy' to be defined?

2) How does the economy of a state fit in with the overall well-being of the state?

3) How is contribution to the economy to be assessed, and by whom? Can it always be quantitatively measured?  (The answer to this will naturally depend on how one answers 1) above.)

If it turns out that these three questions have not been fully thought through, then I would recommend a little Plato ...

In Plato's Republic, a dialogue in which the character of Socrates outlines what he claims is the development of an  ideally just state from scratch, money is introduced fairly early on (in 371b in Book 2) to facilitate the exchange of basic goods and services.  If each human has to produce everything required to satisfy even their basic material needs, life would be almost impossibly hard: we would each have to produce not only our own food, shelter and clothing, but also all the tools needed to produce these things, and even the tools to make the tools.  So it makes sense to specialise in different trades and exchange the products, and money is the best means of facilitating this exchange.  The function of money is thus to make life easier and provide us with more leisure.  It is invented by humans as an efficient means of satisfying certain basic needs.

The trouble, as Plato sees it, is that human psychology makes it very difficult to keep money as the efficient, labour-saving tool that it was designed to be.  This is for three main reasons:

a) Our appetites are essentially unlimited - they do not just aim to satisfy our basic physical needs but want more and more goods and goodies - so our appetite for money will also be unlimited

b)  This would be bad enough, but it's made worse by the fact that the things that our appetites desire are often in limited supply - so conflict can break out in the struggle to obtain them.  At Republic 373e we are told that the origin of war is the same as that of most evil - greed.  And in another dialogue, Phaedo, the message is even blunter: 'all wars are made to get money' (66c).  And we may lose these wars and struggles; they may end up depriving us of the very thing they were designed to obtain in the first place - money.  This seems to be one of the warnings embedded in the Atlantis legend at the end of Plato's Critias.

c)  In Plato's psychology, the desires for e.g. food and drink and the desire for the money needed to obtain them all belong to the same appetitive 'part' of the psyche.  But we can quickly start desiring money for its own sake (particularly as money so often has symbolic value, as we have already seen in Parts 1 and 2 of 'Ethics and Money'), and not just as a means to satisfy other desires, and this desire to hang on to our money and gloat over it can prevent us from buying the things that would satisfy those other desires.  So there are often internal contradictions in our desire for money. 

Fortunately, Plato also holds that in the ideally just psyche this internally contradictory and essentially insatiable appetitive part, bent on goods in short supply, is to be ruled by another part - a rational part which has its own rational desires for truth and reality.  Our desire for and pursuit of money should fit in with a bigger picture of the good life based on reason.

This is not, however, the view of one of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, who holds that humans are ruled by appetitive desire and seek their own individual appetitive gain (though he does admittedly believe that if trade and markets are managed properly, the pursuit of private goals can have public benefit).  David Hume, too, argues that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.  Modern rational choice theory can look as if it is based on the same assumptions.

So; the question we have to ask ourselves is: how many kinds of desire do humans possess, and how many of these can be served by money?  It is not until we know what we think about this that we - or Mandelson - can answer questions 1) and 2) above.


December 13, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 2

The first thing to do when considering the role of money in our life is to work out how much we need to pay the basic bills;, the second is to work out how much we want (in a number of philosophical systems, of course (such as that of Epicurus), the goal is to match our wants to our basic needs; we'll come back to this).  But these two tasks are complicated by the fact that in our culture money is not just a means of purchasing goods and services, but also possesses considerable symbolic value.

So a key question is: when I want to buy something, what is it that I ultimately want to obtain?  For example, I may want to buy a bicycle because I want to get fitter, or to reduce my carbon footprint (or both).  I may want to buy my niece an expensive present because I think it will make her happy, or because I want her to love me (or both).  I may want to invest in gold because I think it will provide me with financial security in turbulent times, or because the investment will make me feel that I am successful (or both).  I may want to buy a sports car because I would love the physical sensation of driving it, or because I want others to admire or envy me, or because I think it will make me seem more attractive (or all of the above!).

The next question, therefore, is: how important are these ultimate aims to me?

Then: if they really are important, is money the only, or the best, means of achieving them?  For example: if my aim is to make my niece happy and/or to strengthen her love for me, could these aims be better achieved by giving her some of my time rather than an expensive present?

If I still really feel that a) my ultimate aim is important and that b) spending money on this particular product or service is the only, or the best, means of obtaining it, then I finally need to ask myself whether, even so, buying the product or service would in fact satisfy my need or want?  Is this particular need or want (for love, say, or a sense of security, or the admiration of others) insatiable or satiable?  If it seems to be the first, is it really insatiable, or does it just appear that way to me because I am conceiving it in the wrong way, or because I have been trying to satisfy it by the wrong means?  

If the need or desire really is genuinely insatiable, would I perhaps be better off trying to rid myself of it entirely rather than trying to obtain more and more money in a fruitless bid to satisfy it?  Or could I perhaps learn to accept that some needs and desires are intrinsically insatiable, and decide only to try to accomodate them to a certain degree but no more?

Next time we'll look at some of the things Plato has to say on these issues. 


November 27, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 1

Firstly, there is certainly no tension between ethics and money, if ethics is interpreted as involving questions about how to live and what sort of person to be.  In a money-based economy, we all need enough money to satisfy basic needs if we are to survive; we probably also need enough money to satisfy some non-basic desires as well, if we are not simply to survive but to lead a good life.  Working out what these basic needs are may well be an area of dispute; deciding which non-basic desires merit satisfying assuredly will (we'll be coming back to this).  So we all need either to make money, or to obtain it by some other means.  And the ways in which we make or obtain money themselves are part of how we live and who we are, and may be done in ways which increase or decrease our own overall well-being and/or which increase or decrease the well-being of others.

But we do not just have to make or otherwise obtain money in order to satisfy at least some of our needs and desires.  We also have to spend it (or use the products which others have bought for us), and the way we spend money is also an ethical issue.  How was the product produced or made?  What are the working conditions of those involved in its production?  What is the environmental impact of its production, transport, marketing, use and disposal?  Should we buy from local sources?  What is going to be the overall impact of the product on our happiness or the happiness of others?  How are we going to find the time to work these things out when we are rushing round the supermarket before picking up our children from school?!

For almost all of us, the making and spending of money will also involve a current bank account, and most of us will also need to borrow from and save in banks and building societies at various stages of our life.  Some of us will also choose to invest e.g. in shares or gilts or property.  So there will also be ethical considerations connected with the terms on which we save, borrow or invest, and the nature of the bank or company with which we are dealing.

So, on the one hand, money undoubtedly plays a key role in our ethical life, and given this, it is strange how little time most of us spend thinking about how best to earn, spend, save, borrow and invest it, in ways that will increase our well-being and perhaps the well-being of others too.  It is also strange how comparatively little attention is given to such matters in most schools (though there are some commendable exceptions, and the situation is slowly changing for the better).  Given this lack of attention to the bigger picture of how money fits in to the good life, it is perhaps not surprising how many unintentional anomalies there are in our thinking and practice e.g someone may say that they think money does not buy happiness and that being wealthy can be dangerous, yet exhaust themselves trying to make money to leave to their children, or they may say that they think investing in shares is wrong without bearing in mind that the banks they use or companies they buy from are doing exactly that.  Nor is it surprising how many rows couples have about money (some of which, of course, are caused by events which are out of their control, but some could be avoided with more discussion and planning).

On the other hand, most of us (as I suggested last week) only want money because we think it can further other ends, yet spend a huge proportion of our waking lives trying to make the stuff that we (mostly) only want because of something else ... And we may further feel trapped in jobs that we hate, and end up feeling intense resentment and frustration.

So our current relation with money in the west is confused and conflicted.  Next week we'll look at whether we can start to clarify the situation (using Plato for some help), and whether we can take any steps to make money work for us, rather than the other way round.

  


November 13, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 3

Here is the final part of our discussion of freedom of expression - a few questions to think about when considering whether there should ever be limits on freedom of expression, and if so, why.  Now we have had a chance to reflect, I would be very interested to find out, either via your blog comments or tweets, whether you think the  Question Time panel should in principle include elected members of all legal political parties and/or whether you think scientific advisers to the Government can say, in any context of their choosing, what they believe to be the scientific truth without reprisal.

1)  What is the scope of 'expression'?  Does it  or should it include, for instance: pornographic displays (themselves very difficult to define, as we may discuss at a later date!); the wearing of a religious symbol; wearing an armband; burning a flag or an effigy?

2)  How important is it to distinguish the restriction of speech from the regulation of speech?

3) How much of a difference does context make? e.g the age of the audience; the time of day; the occasion of a funeral or a satirical television programme?

4) Should we distinguish legal from moral limits? 

5) Clearly most of the debates centre on whether the alleged harm caused by the expression (eg. to personal safety or national security) outweighs the right to freedom of expression (if such there is) or the benefits resulting from freedom of expression (see Part 2).  But are rights and goods commensurable in this way?

6)  In any case, how can one tell what harms have been prevented by freedom of expression?  The crimes the speaker would have committed if s/he had not been able to vent her/his feelings in words or a visual demonstration?  The psychological damage the speaker would have suffered if s/he had not been able to give vent to their feelings and thoughts? 

7)  When freedom of speech (as opposed to the broader freedom of expression) is being discussed, it is sometimes defended by the argument that speech is not action, and it is actions that cause harm.  Is this a meaningful distinction?

8) Suppose it can be proved that the speech incites the action?  How easy is it to prove such a link?

9) Suppose the speech itself causes intense distress?

10)  Suppose the speech defames character and thereby causes economic or other loss?  (Libel laws certainly recognize this as a legitimate limit on freedom of speech.)

11)  Suppose the speech invades privacy?

As I said, I would be very interested to hear your views on the two recent debates concerning freedom of expression mentioned above.

Next week, with many of us feeling tensions between the credit crunch and the approach of festive shopping, we'll look  at the role money plays in the good life - how best to make it, invest it and spend it.

  


November 06, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 2

In response to the comments on last week's blog, I CERTAINLY did not mean to suggest that the less educated should be denied freedom of expression; I simply meant that denying people education can sometimes - clearly not always - make it more difficult for them to make full use of e.g access to parliament and the media i.e genuine freedom may involve not merely being permitted to do something, but also being able to develop the tools to do it effectively.  In what sense am I 'free' to buy food if I have no money?

This week we're going to look briefly at four of the arguments which have been put forward in favour of freedom of expression.

1)  Pursuit of truth (see J.S.Mill On Liberty 1859; Milton Areopagitica 1644).

The idea here is that truth is better served by a free and open exchange and discussion of ideas and information.  This process also needs to be ongoing: Mill, for instance, argues that even a true belief is liable to become dead dogma, rather than a genuine and understood conviction, if it is not challenged. 

- It follows from this that freedom of expression is only valuable if truth can be shown to be valuable.  Furthermore, if it is argued that truth, even if valuable, is not always the overriding value in every circumstance, then there could be then be arguments for limiting freedom of expression if it e.g. compromised public security or private peace of mind.  (More of this next week)

-  Is it really the case that freedom of expression always leads to truth and understanding?  Clearly not, but it could be argued that open debate is more likely to be conducive to truth than censorship.

- What of those forms of expression that are not even aimed at truth - that are intended to create beauty alone, for example?

2) Fundamental to democracy

In this case the idea might be that each person subject to democratic decisions should be entitled to have a voice in the making of those decisions.

- The above might hold, in different ways, in both participatory and representative democracies.  It could be argued that in representative democracies freedom of expression is important in order that the political representatives know what the people they are representing think and feel.

- Freedom of expression might be thought vital for effective opposition in a democracy, and for checks on power.

- BUT, if the case for freedom of expression rests on democratic ideals, then will there not be situations in which the voices of the majority effectively silence the voices of the minority/minorities?

- ALSO a democratic majority might actually legislate to limit freedom of expression, or at any rate certain forms of it.  The thinking here might be that it is O.K to have limits on freedom of expression within a democracy, providing those limits are democratically authorized.  But one might also think that there is a perhaps inevitable tension here, if freedom of expression is thought to be crucial for the running of a genuine democracy, as suggested above.

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic ideals, then does this mean that the only kind of expression which can be defended is that which is needed for participation in the democratic process?

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic principles, does this mean that it is not important in a non-democratic framework? 

3) A fundamental right?

See, for example, Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution.

- This, of course, will depend in turn on whether you think the notion of 'rights' makes any sense.

4) Fundamental to psychological well-being?

- There might be a deep need for (instead of/as well as a right to) freedom of expression, as a vital ingredient of a deep need for liberty in general.

- Hearing the views of others is a key part of treating them with respect and according them dignity (a point which can also be made in terms of a defence based on rights). 

- 3) and 4) raise the issue of whether freedom of expression is to be defended on the grounds of its rightness, or its goodness, or both.  

That's enough for this week!  Next time we'll look at possible limits on freedom of expression.

Have a great weekend.


October 30, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 1

Hi there - this is the first of my responses to the question about whether there are any circumstances in which freedom of expression should be curtailed.  The idea is not to attempt to write a complete essay (impossible in any case with such a huge topic).  The plan is simply to ask a few further questions and make a few suggestions, to enable people (particularly those new to philosophy) to explore the subject further for themselves.  The reason that I leave a week between posing a question and giving a response is to allow people a chance to think about the topic for themselves first, without mediation from me.  In other words, I am trying to encourage active thought and participation in debate, rather than simply the passive imbibing of ideas!

So here goes.  To get a grip on the question, we first need to understand better what 'freedom of expression' might mean, then (in Part 2) look at a variety of arguments which might support it, and then (Part 3) consider arguments which might support limits for it.

Part 1: What does 'freedom of expression' involve?

- Involves written and spoken words; non-verbal forms of communication such as pictures, symbols, gestures, cartoons, TV footage

-  Could also apply to the editorial policy of e.g. a newspaper, TV or radio programme or website, academic journal, purchasing policy of a library

- 'Freedom' might mean that no law or person or body of persons is preventing you from expressing yourself in the first place

- It might also imply that you are not going to e.g suffer violence or lose your job if you do express yourself 

- It might also imply that you have a) the opportunity to express yourself e.g access to parliament and the media; b)sufficient education to enable you to articulate your views clearly; c) being listened to when you do articulate them 

c) can be an issue in a democracy, where the exercise of free speech by the majority (or someone in the majority) can sometimes inhibit the exercise of free speech by a minority (or someone in a minority)

- All the above conditions can be met, and yet the person may still not be thought to be expressing their own views: we may feel they have been brainwashed, or at least not made sufficiently aware of alternative positions (some of these objections can be met by considering what is involved in the education in b) above)

- 'Freedom of expression' can imply the freedom to hear/see what someone else is expressing as well as the right to express your own views

- Context and audience are important things to think about: do we want freedom of expression in all contexts, and in front of all audiences?

- We will also need to think about whether there are or should be differences between what is legal and what is moral re. freedom of speech

That's enough for now!  In Part 2), we will look at a few of the arguments in favour of freedom of expression, which will get us into considering whether it is a 'right', or a 'good' or both.

A couple of reading suggestions to get you started:

Nigel Warburton Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford)

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty (Lots of editions; first published 1859)   

 


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