Monday, October 30, 2006

Beer and rights

I have no idea what the Lord Chancellor's intentions were in declaring that:
"Human rights are as British as the Beatles. As British as the BBC. As British as bitter beer."
It's pretty nonsensical however you look at it. And I don't think it works as a piece of rhetoric. But, if it means anything at all, is this claim true? I think he wants it to refer primarily to the UK's role in drafting the European Convention on which the act is based, but even so it is worth asking whether humans rights are British... Isn't there something odd about such a claim anyway, since I thought that human rights were supposed to be somehow independent of any particular citizenship or nationhood. At least natural human rights would seem to be like that.
Still, if you want quickly to find out what rights you have (and when they can be overridden) you could start with the DoCA's website, and its handy 'study guide'. This will tell you, for example:
Article 2: The right to life

3.12 In summary, you have the right to have your life protected by law. There are very limited circumstances when it is acceptable for the state to take away someone’s life. You also have the right to an effective investigation if one of your family members dies incircumstances where the state might have had a part to play in the death. Everyone present in the UK has these rights, including those such as suspected terrorists or violent criminals who put the lives of other people at risk.
Article 2 gives perhaps the most fundamental of all the rights under the ECHR.

So that's clear. The state cannot kill you except in cases when it can. And if it does, your family gets to have it investigated, but not necessarily explained. Note that this is the most fundamental of all rights and even this is defeasible. But when?
So here's the problem. To be honest, I find talk of rights incredibly slippery. At most, they seem to be declarations of what we take to be a person's general entitlements and what such a person may not be prevented from doing. But in most cases, it is indeed possible to conjure up cases where the circumstances seem to demand the infringement of a supposed right. (See, for example, the nice first -year kind of questions about torture.) What ever is wrong with just saying that there are certain things we think should not be done to people and certain things people should be allowed to do? This sounds to me like a clear set of moral questions, and talk about rights often merely obfuscates the central issues. Why don't we just say that we think that killing people is, generally, wrong. There are times when this basic intuition might come under pressure, however, at which point some very careful and agonising thinking has to be done. There may be no clear and easy rules about when it's OK and when it's not of the sort that would make convincing and useful legislation. But why should we expect there to be?
Are these questions as British as bitter and the Beatles? No. They are as universal as suffering, oppression, and difficult choices.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Palingenesis again

I haven't posted much about ancient philosophy, and certainly not about my own work, but there is always a first time.

It is always nice to find out that someone has read something you have written and has thought about it. For philosophers, often the most evident sign of this is that someone objects to what you have written. I have just picked up a copy of Richard Sorabji’s new book, Self: ancient and modern insights about individuality, life, and death (Oxford University Press, 2006) to find that he is not convinced by a short piece I published some time ago (‘Lucretian palingenesis recycled’, Classical quarterly 51, 2001, 499–508). There I argued that Lucretius does not, at DRN 3.843–51 commit himself to a psychological criterion of identity along the lines of Locke’s view of the matter, although Locke himself perhaps took inspiration from this very passage. Those with an institutional subscription to the journal can read the article here.
Sorabji’s objection is that at 3.861–3...

Lucretius ‘moves to the idea that, with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all.’ … ‘He appears to be taking the same view earlier at 677–78, where he infers from our not remembering an earlier life that any past soul has perished and our present soul only now has been created.’ (Sorabji, Self, 2006, 98).
The note to the second sentence just quoted wonders how I would take the lines 677–8 and 861–3.

677–8 is not particularly problematic for my account, and indeed I do discuss it – albeit briefly – at ‘Palingenesis’, 506. Here L. argues that the soul is not immortal because we do not remember the time before birth. The fact that all retention of past actions has been lost shows that this state is not far from death. So the continuity of memory is a good sign of the continuity of existence. And although this is close to saying that there is a psychological condition of personal identity, it is not quite there. Indeed, what Lucretius says is quite consistent with denying that the continuity of memory is a necessary or sufficient condition of identity over time. On that view, the palingenesis hypothesis (i.e. the notion that, given time, all the atoms which now constitute me will after my death return to the same arrangement as they are in now) leads Lucretius to say, for example, that the two individuals A and B, who are constituted by the same atoms in the same arrangement are indeed identical. Let’s say that person A at t1 has atomic formation F. A dies at t2. Later, this identical atomic formation (which I take to mean not just the same arrangement but the same atoms in the same arrangment) F will be restored. Let’s say B is born at t3 and at t4 F is restored.

677–8 on my account says that, for example, B at t4 will not remember any of the events between t1 and t2. Therefore the soul is mortal; it did not persist throughout t1–t4 since if it had there is no reason for this amnesia (pace, I imagine, a Platonist’s story about incarnation disrupting our souls such that we need to recollect truths acquired when discarnate. And, in any case, on a plausible view of what Platonic anamnēsis recalls, we certainly do not recall particular facts about any personal prior existence). But all this is quite compatible with asserting the identity of A and B and to think it is not simply begs the question. So I agree that ‘with memory interrupted and indeed missing, it will not be the very person after all’ but only in the sense that it is true that between t2 and t3 A and B do not exist.

True, we end with the slightly odd view that a person’s ‘death’ does not last forever – it lasts between one life and the next identical life (here, between t2 and t3) – and that sits uncomfortably with e.g. mors aeterna at 3.1091 (as I note in 'Palingenesis' p.506). But at no point does Lucretius say that continuity of memory is a condition of identity and none of his claims commit him to it.

861–3 is also compatible with my account. Lucretius says nothing in these lines, by the way, about memory (contrary to Sorabji’s claim). Rather, he makes the very general claim that for X to be a possible subject of harm at t, X must himself exist at t. (Compare Epicurus’: ‘Death is nothing to the living or the dead; for when we are it is not and when it is, we are not.’) So, taking up the last example, A (who on my account = B) cannot be harmed in the period t2–t3 (‘death’) because he does not exist then. Nor could A be harmed before before his birth. Does this mean that B can be harmed by something that happens between t1 and t2, i.e. during A’s life? No, and this is where psychological continuity is relevant. We are justified in feeling concern only at times to which we are/will be psychologically connected and since there is no psychological connection between A and B there is no reason for A to be concerned about what happens to B or vice versa. (That is what I take to be the point of 3.847–53.) But this is an entirely different matter from the question of the identity of A and B. On this Lucretius says nothing to qualify the statement at 3.445–5: ‘we and formed and held together by the banding together and union of body and soul.’

Friday, October 20, 2006


It's often the ads that are the best things on TV. Certainly, some of them have the biggest budgets. The new Sony Bravia ad is beautiful -- at least as good as the bouncing balls. Watch it here and let it cheer you up.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


One of the standard questions posed to undergraduates beginning to think about consequentialism is whether they think it would be right to torture someone in order to bring about some desired consequence. (Would it be right to torture someone to extract the information necessary to prevent a devastating terrorist attack? Would it be right to torture that person's child if it would be the most effective method of getting the information? Would it be right to torture the innocent to prevent future criminal acts? And so on.) Mostly this just generates a set of conflicting intuitions and starts the discussion.

But now we have some useful statistics to show what people generally think. The BBC report is here under the headline:
One-third support 'some torture'
Nearly a third of people worldwide back the use of torture in prisons in some circumstances, a BBC survey suggests.
That's already a bit of spin, of course, since more than half do not support the use of torture in any circumstances. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the survey is that allows you to compare attitudes between countries. A greater percentage of Italians are against any form of torture than any other nationality surveyed, while Indians are the most likely not to know whether they think all tortue is unacceptable. Of course, not much can be concluded from this -- although, no doubt we will see various camps claim support from these figures. I would like to know whether these figures would have been noticeably different if the survey had been carried out six years ago.

Friday, October 13, 2006


It's getting close to that time of year again. With the application deadline for undergraduate entry in 2007 looming, the national press is looking to fill a few more inches with stories about the process, which they insist on portraying as either overly gruelling, capricious, or otherwise plain unjust. The first piece I've seen this year is in today's Times. It focuses particularly on how 'bizarre' the questions asked at interview might be. 'Are you cool?' was apparently set for PPE applicants at Oxford. The article does not make perfectly clear why such questions are asked, however, and there is indeed a rather good rationale for them. In particular, interviewers are interested in seeing whether an applicant has the potential to do well and is therefore trying to bypass any differentials in their schooling and the base knowledge they have to see whether what they know can be deployed in a novel circumstance. We are trying to find out whether they have the ability to pick apart the various factors involved in assessing a new situation and then build a cogent response to a surprising question. So it is not the case, for example, that when asked to put a monetary value on a teapot there is in fact a price the interviewer is looking for (it's not The Price is Right), but what matters is whether the applicant can think about how things are valued in a capitalist economy.

For my purposes, I was also interested to learn from the article that:
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill was also a must for philosophy students, with
38 per cent who had read it being made an offer.
This is interesting because rather a lot of applicants say they have read Utilitarianism. I wonder how many have actually read it and, more important, how many have thought much about it. There is a difference between tackling bits of it in an A-level Philosophy class and reading and thinking about it independently.

For more information from Cambridge University about interviews, go here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Philosophy and the classics

Unlike some other excellent blogs by ancient philosophers, I have tended to shy away from saying anything much here about ancient philosophy. But today I picked up the latest issue of Philosophy and found the editorial wondering whether it matters to philosophy that of the 675,00 pupils taking GCSE exams in Britain, fewer than 10,000 take Latin and fewer than 1,000 Greek. Around 4,500 take Classical civilisation. (Those are the figures cited in the editorial. The ARLT blog has some figures from 2006.) It is not, I think, true as the editorial claims that 'such a seismic shift in educational values should occasion so little comment' since plenty of classicists and schoolteachers have been trying to bring this to wider attention for some time now. But perhaps it is nevertheless significant that the decline in numbers taking exams in classics at school is beginning to concern those outside classics. The editorial ends:
"Critical thinking, on which there is great interest in the philosophical community, is all very well; but we should also be concerned about the roots of our thinking, and about transmitting to our successors some grasp of these roots."
It still remains to be seen, I think, precisely what a 'grap of these roots' will contribute to philosophical studies at a time when professional philosophy in some parts, at least, is becoming increasingly technical and less the 'humanistic discipline' that Bernard Williams once dubbed it. Here in Cambridge, there is no compulsory ancient philosophy element to the undergraduate degree (although most first years do read Plato's Meno). Of course, I happen to think they are missing out. But it would take me some time to articulate precisely what I think would be missing from their study of philosophy by not studying 'the classics'.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lie, lay, laid...

I think this might be a sign of my becoming a grumpy old man, but there is a song that drives me mad every time I hear it. It's not because it's a soppy bit of nonsense that goes nowhere whatsoever, a sort of cut-price torch song that would give its eye teeth to have half of the emotional impact and a quarter of the lyrical interest of something like The Smiths' There is a light that never goes out. No. It's because of its appalling grammar. The song is Chasing cars by Snow Patrol. (The full horror of the lyrics can be found here.)

The offensive part is unfortunately the chorus, which repeatedly wonders: 'If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lay with me...' on and on and on. What are they? Battery hens? The most annoying thing is that they could have said 'If I lie...' with no consequences for metre or rhyme. I have to turn it off every time it comes on the radio.

And don't get me started on Midge Ure's 'classic' If I was...