Monday, 30 March 2020

Making the Case for Multiculturalism

Posted by Keith Tidman

Multiculturalism and ‘identity politics’ have both overlapping and discrete characteristics. Identity politics, for example, widens out to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, language, religion, disability, and so forth. Humanity’s mosaic. It’s where, in a shift toward pluralism, barriers dissolve — where sidelined minority groups become increasingly mainstreamed, self-determination acquires steam, and both individual and group rights equally pertain to the ideal.

This situation is historically marked by differences between those people who, on one hand, emphasise individual rights, goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being, where each person’s independence stands highest and apart from cultural belonging. And, on the other hand, the communitarians, who emphasise a group perspective. Communitarians regard the individual as ‘irreducibly social’, to borrow Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s shorthand.

The group perspective subordinately depends on society. This group perspective needs affirmation, addressing status inequality, with remedies concentrated in political change, redistributive economics, valuing cultural self-worth, and other factors. Communitarians assign primacy to collective rights, socialising goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being. In other words, civic virtue — with individuals freely opting in and opting out of the group. Communitarians and individualists offer opposed views of how our identities are formed. 

But the presumed distinctions between the individual and community may go too far. Rather, reality arguably comprises a coexistent folding together of both liberal individualism and communitarianism in terms of multiculturalism and identity. To this point, people are capable of learning from each other’s ideas, customs, and social behaviour, moving toward an increasingly hybrid, cosmopolitan philosophy based on a new communal lexicon, fostering human advancement.

The English writer (and enthusiastic contributor to Pi’s sister publication, The Philosopher) G. K. Chesterton always emphasised the integrity of this learning process, cautioning:

‘We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. So long as we find the character easy to read, we are reading into it our own character’.

Other thinkers point out that cultures have rarely been easily cordoned off or culturally pristine. They contend that groups have always been influenced by others through diverse means, both malign and benign: invasion, colonialism, slavery, commerce, migration, flow of ideas, ideologies, religions, popular culture, and other factors. The cross-pollination has often been reciprocal — affecting the cultural flashpoints, social norms, and future trajectories of both groups.

Globalisation only continues to hasten this process. As the New Zealand philosopher of law Jeremy Waldron puts it, commenting on the phenomenom of cultural overlap:

‘We live in a world formed by technology and trade; by economic, religious, and political imperialism and their offspring; by mass migration and the dispersion of cultural influences’.

How groups reckon with these historical influences, as groups become more pluralistic, deserves attention, so that change can happen more by design than chance.

After all, it’s a high bar to surmount the historic balkanisation of minority cultures and to push back against the negativism of those who trumpet (far too prematurely) multiculturalism’s failure. The political reality is that societies continue to reveal dynamically moving parts. Real-world multiculturalism is, all the time, coalescing into new shapes and continuing to enrich societies.

Multiculturalism in political philosophy involves acknowledging and understanding the fact of diverse cultural moorings in society and the challenges they pose in terms of status, equality, and power — along with remedies. Yet, in this context, the question recurs time and again: has the case really been made for multiculturalism?

The American philosopher John Searle, in the context of education, questions the importance of ‘Western rationalistic tradition’ — where what we know is ‘a mind-independent reality . . . subject to constraints of rationality and logic’. Adding: ‘You do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others’.

Charles Taylor, however, sees multiculturalism differently, as an offshoot of liberal political theory, unhampered by heavily forward-leaning ideology. This aligns with postmodernist thinking, distrusting rationalism as to truth and reality. The merits of scepticism, criticism, subjectivism, contextualism, and relativism are endorsed, along with the distinctiveness of individuals and minority groups within society.

Advocates of multiculturalism warn against attempts to shoehorn minority groups into the prevailing culture, or worse. Where today we see rampant nationalism in many corners of the world — suppressing, tyrannizing, and even attempting to stamp out minority communities — eighty years ago Mahatma Gandhi warned of such attempts:

‘No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive’.

Monday, 23 March 2020

COVID-19: Let It Be

Miguel Opazo, Pest, 2017
Posted by Thomas Scarborough and Martin Cohen
Jeffrey Kluger, the editor at large for TIME magazine, observed last week, ‘There’s nothing quite like the behavior of panicky humans.’  He was writing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is the panic -- or should we say, alarm -- justified?

The initial response to the disease, although stumbling and slow in some respects, was by and large the correct one: get a fix on the disease.  What are we dealing with?  What is its character?  The next steps, then, were textbook containment and mitigation.  Since then, of course, the pandemic has developed other dimensions, though not as a direct result of the disease. Rich Lesser, the CEO of a global management consultancy, wrote in Fortune magazine last week, ‘It started as a health crisis, within days became a real economic crisis, and is now on a swift path to becoming a massive fiscal challenge.’

There would seem to be two assumptions in the early -- and continuing -- response to the pandemic: under no circumstances sickness, yet if there is, complete control.  All over the world, we find language which reveals an ‘uncompromising’, ‘relentless’, and ‘aggressive’ approach -- an ideal plan which is not to make any concessions to the disease.  And always, in the statistics, one finds a column marked ‘deaths’, to which all control would seem to defer.  The aim is zero deaths, zero deaths, zero deaths.  In fact the biggest opprobrium for any government in the midst of the pandemic is the death rate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has two important features: the seriousness of the pandemic, and the character of the disease.

About the seriousness of the pandemic, mortality stood last week at about 3% -- if one calculates the ratio of total confirmed cases to deaths.  Yet for a number of reasons, this is quite uncertain.  For example, various academic papers have estimated that more than 80% of cases are undetected.  This reduces 3% to 0.6%.  Some place mortality far lower -- the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine placed it at 0.14% last week.  The World Health Organization calculated that in China, the 'real' mortality rate for ‪COVID-19‬ was 0.7% of reported cases, where only 5% of cases were reported. That's a 0.035% death rate.

While various kinds of ‘experts’, media, and ‘modellers’ have been plugging in figures as high as 10% for ‪Corona virus‬ fatalities, one professor of public health, John Ionnidis of Stanford University, suggests ‘reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%’.  Compare the lower figure.  He explains his reasoning, too, saying that the one situation where an entire, closed population was tested was the Diamond Princess cruise ship and its unfortunate, quarantined passengers.
‘The case fatality rate there was 1.0%, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher…’  
Writing for Stat magazine, he adds,
‘Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%.’
If we assume that the ‘case fatality rate’ among individuals infected by the virus is 0.3%, and 1% of the U.S. population gets infected, this would translate to about 10,000 deaths. This sounds a huge number, but is within normal flu toll.

Even the one thing everyone agrees -- that we have to flatten the curve to spread out the load of cases (and avoid overburdening health services) -- Ionnidis casts doubt on.  Spreading the infections out over a longer period of time is better?  Not necessarily.  It ‘may make things worse: Instead of being overwhelmed during a short, acute phase, the health system will remain overwhelmed for a more protracted period.’  For Ionnidis, the policy response, not the virus, is the perturbing part, as ‘with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.’

The point is that fatalities, although they are tragic and traumatic in every case, are comparatively small, although, the numbers sound alarming given the large population which may be affected.

As for the character of the disease, it has some well-defined features.  It is now certain that it is far more dangerous to those who are more advanced in years, from about age 60, certainly from age 70.  It is far more dangerous for those with pre-morbidities, or compromised health, or concurrent infections, among other things.  This makes the picture far more varied than the simplest scenario of containment and mitigation.  Also, methods of containment and mitigation themselves are very varied, and may be greatly helped with fairly simple -- and far from extreme -- measures.

Given this brief survey, and assuming that it is broadly true -- what would the philosophers have said?

The Delphic maxim proclaimed, ‘Nothing to excess,’ while Aristotelian philosophers emphasised the Golden Mean -- the middle way between extremes of excess and deficiency.  Socrates said, ‘Choose the mean, and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.’  In short, they sought a general holism.  With this in mind, they might well have cautioned us against a reductionist response to the crisis, and to take all factors into account and to balance them.  Protect the elderly, defend the vulnerable, comfort the distressed, yet for the rest, accept the tragic inevitability of illness and death among us, maintain the life and pulse of society -- and let it go.  Let it be.

A more holistic view suggests, too, that we should think, not only of the present pandemic, but of the past and the future.  As with all pandemics, there is a bigger picture.  Where have we come from, that this has happened to us now?  Where are we going to, as we shape the society of the future?  And what if it had been worse?  Pandemics are always embedded in background conditions.  One needs to consider economic and financial systems, urban planning, health care, lifestyle choices, communications -- in fact, the entire order of the day.

Above all, it is a reductionist response which drives us to the totalising ambition of no illness, and certainly, zero deaths -- and in the midst of this, the suppressed premise of our age: preserve life at all costs.  Less than a hundred years ago, religious congregations all over the world would pray for healing through God’s angel of death, if he should so will.  That prayer has now been expunged.  Death is not a constant companion today, as it sometimes was in the past, but an enemy to be defeated at all costs.  If only one knew what one were hoping to save.  It would seem that not many do -- and that in itself may be a large part of the panic, the alarm.  There has to be a way of living that triumphs over stalking death.

It remains to be seen whether ‘the behaviour of panicky humans’ can be sustained today.   At the moment, we are all locked into a more or less unified response to the pandemic, by the decisions of governments the world over -- and they in turn are judged by their peers.  

Monday, 16 March 2020

POETRY: A Greater Question (concerning the new coronavirus)

Posted by Chengde Chen * and Yingfang Zhang
Part II 
“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers… 

The people in the Doomsday horror are speculating:
Is the virus destroying mankind man-made?
If so, by whom?
Some suspect China, while others, America

But a greater question is if science can do it
If it can, won’t the disaster happen sooner or later?
Hiroshima/Nagasaki was a continuation of atomic physics
Chernobyl was what nuclear technology had entailed

When scientists said they didn’t do it this time
It meant they had been able to
So, whether it was man-made this time, or by whom,
Has been a relatively–secondary question!

If it has been possible, then it is inevitable –
A fatal car-crash for the driver is a matter of time
If we still can’t see science is such a car for mankind
What does it matter if it happens this time or the next?

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Does Power Corrupt?

Mandell Creighton leading his group, ‘The Quadrilateral’, at Oxford University in 1865. (As seen in Louise Creighton’s book, The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton.)
Posted by Keith Tidman

In 1887, the English historian, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, penned this cautionary maxim in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. He concluded his missive by sounding this provocative note: ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. Which might lead one to reflect that indeed human history does seem to have been fuller of Neros and Attilas than Buddhas and Gandhis.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the correlation between power and corruption was amply pointed out before Lord Acton, as evidenced by this 1770 observation by William Pitt the Elder, a former prime minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords: ‘Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it’. To which, the eighteenth-century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke also seemed to agree:
‘The greater the power, the greater the abuse’.
History is of course replete with scoundrels and tyrants, and worse, rulers who have egregiously and enthusiastically abused power — often with malign, even cruel, brutal, and deadly, consequences. Situations where the Orwellian axiom that ‘the object of power is power’ prevails, with bad outcomes for the world. Indulgent perpetrators have ranged from heads of state like pharaohs to emperors, kings and queens, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, chiefs, and popes. As well as people scattered throughout the rest of society, from corrupt leaders of industry to criminals to everyday citizens.

In some instances, it seems indeed that wielding great power has led susceptible people to change, in the process becoming corrupt or unkind in erstwhile uncharacteristic ways. As to the psychology of that observation, a much-cited Stanford University experiment, conducted in 1971, suggested such an effect, though its findings come with caveats. The two-week experiment was intended to show the psychological effects of prison life on behaviour, using university students as pretend prison guards and prisoners in a mock prison on campus.

However, the quickly mounting, distressing maltreatment of ‘prisoners’ in the experiment by those in the authoritative role of guards — behaviour that included confiscating the prisoners’ clothes and requiring them to sleep on concrete flooring — led to the experiment being canceled after only six days. Was that the prospect of ‘abuse’ of which Burke warned us above? Was it the prospect of the ‘perpetual and restless desire of power after power’ of which the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned us?

In many other cases, it has also been observed that there seem to be predispositions toward corruption and abuse, in which power serves to amplify rather than simply instill. This view seems favoured today. Power (the acquisition of authority) may prompt people to disregard social checks on their natural instincts and shed self-managing inhibitions. Power uncovers the real persona — those whose instinctual character is malignly predisposed.

President Abraham Lincoln seemed to subscribe to this position regarding preexisting behavioural qualities, saying,
‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character [true persona], give him power’.
Among people in leadership positions, in any number of social spheres, power can have two edges — good and bad. Decisions, intent, and outcomes matter. So, for example, ‘socialised power’ translates to the beneficial use of power and influence to inspire others toward the articulation and realisation of visions and missions, as well as the accomplishment of tangible goals. The idea being to benefit others: societal, political, corporate, economic, communal, spiritual. All this in a manner that, by definition, presupposes freedom as opposed to coerced implementation.

‘Personalised power’, on the other hand, reflects a focus on meeting one’s own expectations. If personalised power overshadows or excludes common goods, as sometimes seen among autocratic, self-absorbed, and unsympathetic national leaders, the exclusion is concerning as it may injure through bad policy. Yet, notably these two indices of power can be compatible — they aren’t necessarily adversarial, nor does one necessarily force the other to beat a retreat. Jointly, in fact, they’re more likely force-multiplying.

One corollary (a cautionary note, perhaps) has to do with the ‘power paradox’. As a person acquires power through thoughtfulness, respect, and empathetic behaviours, and his or her influence accordingly flourishes, the risk emerges that the person begins to behave less in those constructive ways. Power may paradoxically spark growing self-centeredness, and less self-constraint. It’s potentially seductive; it can border on Machiavellian doctrine as to control over others, whereby decisions and behaviours become decreasingly framed around laudable principles of morality and, instead, take a turn to exertion of coercive power and fear in place of inspiration.

In a turnabout, this diminution of compassionate behaviours — combined with an increase in impulsivity and self-absorption, increase in ethical shortcuts, and decrease in social intelligence — might steadily lessen the person’s power and influence. It returns to a set point. And unless they’re vigilant, leaders — in politics, business, and other venues — may focus less and less on the shareable common good.

As a matter of disputable attribution, Plato summed up the lessons that have come down through history on the matters discussed here, his purportedly saying in few words but without equivocation:
‘The measure of a man is what he does with power’.
Although he doesn’t seem to have actually ever said this as such, it certainly captures the lesson and message of his famous moral tale, about the magic ring of Gyges that confers the power of invisibility on its owner.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Picture Post #54: Ghost Rainbow

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

26 February 2020. Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town. 33.906° S, 18.398° E.

Some call it a ghost rainbow. It has been described as a hollowed out rainbow, or the rainbow's eerie cousin. Sightings are said to be extremely rare -- and when ghost rainbows do appear, people are astounded. I said to a kayaker staring into the sand, 'See, a ghost rainbow has appeared.' He looked up. 'A ghost rainbow!' he exclaimed, and jumped up to tell a friend. His friend ran into a shed to pull out a large DSLR. This was a magical moment, surprising, striking -- perhaps never seen or imagined before by some of those who saw it.

Such things not only grab our attention. They ignite our reason. We begin to ask Why? How? What? When? But let us pause for a moment -- and turn our gaze inward. Did we ourselves conjure up the rainbow? Did we decide to be attentive to it, or to connect with it, to question or decode? Or did the rainbow lay hold of us? Did it commandeer the mind? In fact, is there ever anything in the world, which impels us, that is not like this rainbow? Whatever it may be, can we ever pretend to any other office than to serve and obey it? 

Monday, 24 February 2020

Poetry: Critique of Genetic Engineering

Posted by Chengde Chen *

“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers 

Genetic engineering has a million benefits,

While I have only one reason against it.

But, any number multiplying a zero becomes a zero.

Science is supposed to support human existence;

If genes are written by all historical conditions of nature,

Isn’t quoting them out of context man outlawing himself?

The temperature on the Earth’s surface is within ±50ºC

A very small range in the grand thermometer of the universe,

But just the home for us – the creature of 37ºC – to survive.

Believers marvel at God’s arrangement, yet it’s only nature.

All existing species are adapters to this condition;

Those not, either never had a chance, or have been eliminated.


Should God, seized by a whim, play at “planet engineering”

Rearranging the order of the solar system, what would happen?

If Earth moved one step inwards to the position of Venus,

The mighty 480ºC would evaporate us into clouds.

If Earth moved one step outwards to the position of Mars,

The minus 140ºC would cast us into super-ice.

Earth is in our genes.

Genes are nature’s vertical memory and horizontal logic.

The process of adapting and eliminating carves all specifications.

The billions of codes are billions of doors and locks without keys,

Shutting out foreign viruses with DNA incompatibility

So we don’t catch cats’ flu, nor do dogs get our hepatitis.

Yet, manufactured genes come suddenly

Sharing no responsibility of history but short-circuiting species.

When transgenic pig organs are implanted into humans, 

Pig viruses also leap over millions of years to join us.

To gain medical benefits by dismantling the species barriers, 

It’s self-disarming to the bone or tying oneself up to WMD?

The biological world is a self-contained all-dimensional computer;

Messing up one sequence could throw the whole system into chaos,

Which is asking God to restart His creation all over!

So He’d rather we mess about with the planets than modify genes.

“If you must,” He may say, “modify Mine first to have a GM god 

To recreate the world, I’d need enhanced energy and perseverance.” 

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 17 February 2020

The Quiet Revolution That is Replacing Traditional Financing Models?

'The Moneylender and His Wife' by Quentin Metsys, 1514.

Posted by Emile Wolfaardt

Around the circumference of the globe and across the stage of history, the engines of almost all labor and commerce enterprises turn with one common goal in mind – to be financially profitable. This is true individually and collectively. We go to work each day with the goal of making money – of acquiring some sort of currency that we can use to exchange for goods or services. We earn ‘purchasing power’ – or units that we can exchange for something we want or need.

While most of us use some sort of currency, these units of purchasing power have not always been in the forms of coins and bills. Shells, stones, metals, and other animate and inanimate objects have been used in our history. And for the most part – the value is assigned as opposed to being intrinsic. Paper money is said to have assigned value and precious metal and gems intrinsic value. Yet, if sand was scarcer than diamonds, and was necessary – it would have an even greater value than diamonds - so perhaps all value is assigned.

But some people today claim that there is a revolution taking place in the financial world. Up to now – currency and purchasing power has been controlled by governments and financial institutions. Currency is determined to be ‘legal tender’ but it belongs to the government. In most countries, it is illegal to damage currency - it is considered damage to government property. The government and the financial institutions charge you to use the money. You pay when you deposit it, when you withdraw it, when you borrow it and when you are given it. Some banks will waive some of these fees under certain conditions and the government will waive taxes or reduce them in certain circumstances. In this model, Providers have custody of the wealth and grant access to the owners. This is called Banking. 

But a new form of financing has emerged that is not controlled by the government or the financial institutions. Rather, it is peer to peer financing – and it is structured around blockchain, and the currency is called crypto currency. Bitcoin is the largest of these and it constitutes about 80% of the market. In Blockchain, Owners have custody of the wealth and grant access to Providers. Its supporters say that instead of being controlled centrally by some body, it is ‘decentralised’ and controlled by the millions of people who own it.
Bitcoin was founded in in 2009.

The first few years of cryptocurrencies were hectic, and the investment opportunities were more like gambling. Lots of people made millions of dollars, but many more lost their money. As more and more people became interested in a blockchain financing model, the governments and financial institutions started to rail against it. Financial institutions like JP Morgan, Morgan Stanly, the IMF, Barclays Bank etc. all condemned them. 

Nonetheless, in 2019, it was institutional money and the Whales of Wall Street that were the biggest investors in Crypto Currency. Apparently, the FBI is the second largest holder of Bitcoin in the world (although their holdings do not come from investments). Currently, the big institutions are spending millions of dollars on crypto investments, and many countries are embracing it – some as a replacement currency to their own. Many mainline vendors like Apple, Google, etc. now accept Bitcoin as legitimate payment. And yet governments are recognising they do not have the ability to control it. Mike Crapo, United States Senate Chairman of the Banking Committee:
'If the United States were to decide ... we don’t want cryptocurrency to happen in the United States ... we couldn’t succeed in doing that because this is a global innovation.'
Not everyone is an enthusiast for the new money. Writing at, Saeed Elnaj says:
“Bitcoin’s promise was to bypass the centralized economic system and enable peer-to-peer exchange of value using the digital currency. But with the fluctuating price of Bitcoin, it is very hard to buy a cup of coffee or an album online. It is also impractical given the delay required to complete time-sensitive transactions. In fact, since Bitcoin’s astronomical rise in December 2017, the number of Bitcoin transactions has dramatically plunged.”
 And he suggests that rather the primary attraction of the currency is irrational.
“It seems that Bitcoin will likely cease to have meaningful value, defeating the whole point and philosophy imagined by Satoshi Nakamoto, the alleged inventor of Bitcoin. Its current value appears to be purely psychological, and the hype seems to be driven by irrational exuberance, greed and speculation.”
Money has gone through several revolutions, among them barter, precious metals, paper money, banking, money wires, credit cards ... and now, cryptocurrencies. Will this be a true revolution? Or a false dawn? Time will tell.

Monday, 10 February 2020

What Is It to Be Human?

Hello, world!
Posted by Keith Tidman

Consciousness is the mental anchor to which we attach our larger sense of reality.

We are conscious of ourselves — our minds pondering themselves in a curiously human manner — as well as being intimately conscious of other people, other species, and everything around us, near and remote.

We’re also aware that in reflecting upon ourselves and upon our surroundings, we process experiences absorbed through our senses — even if filtered and imagined imperfectly. This intrinsically empirical nature of our being is core, nourishing our experience of being human. It is our cue: to think about thinking. To ponder the past, present, and future. To deliberate upon reality. And to wonder — leaving no stone unturned: from the littlest (subatomic particles) to the cosmic whole. To inspire and be inspired. To intuit. To poke into the possible beginning, middle, and end of the cosmos. To reflect on whether we behave freely or predeterminedly. To conceptualise and pick from alternative futures. To learn from being wrong as well as from being right. To contemplate our mortality. And to tease out the possibility of purpose from it all.

Perception, memory, interpretation, imagination, emotion, logic, and reason are among our many tools for extracting order out of disorder, to quell chaos. These and other properties, collectively essential to distinguishing humanity, enable us to model reality, as best we can.

There is perhaps no more fundamental investigation than this into consciousness touching upon what it means to be human.

To translate the world in which we’re thoroughly immersed. To use our rational minds as the gateway to that understanding — to grasp the dimensions of reality. For humans, the transmission of thought, through the representational symbols of language, gestures, and expressions — representative cognition — provides a tool for chiseling out our place in the world. In the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein laconically but pointedly framed the germaneness of these ideas:
‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.
Crucially, Wittgenstein grounds language as a tool for communication in shared experiences. 

Language provides not only an opening through which to peer into human nature but also combines  with other cognitive attributes, fueling and informing what we believe and know. Well, at least what we believe we know. The power of language — paradoxically both revered and feared, yet imperative to our success — stems from its channeling human instincts: fundamentally, what we think we need and want.

Language, to the extraordinary, singular level of complexity humankind has developed and learned to use it as a manifestation of human thought, emanates from a form of social leaning. That is, we experiment with language in utilitarian fashion, for best effect; use it to construct and contemplate what-ifs, venturing into the concrete and abstract to unspool reality; and observe, interact with, and learn from each other in associative manner. Accumulative adaptation and innovation. It’s how humanity has progressed — sometimes incrementally, sometimes by great bounds; sometimes as individuals, sometimes as elaborate networks. Calibrating and recalibrating along the way. Accomplished, deceptively simply, by humans emitting sounds and scribbling streams of symbols to drive progress — in a manner that makes us unique.

Language — sophisticated, nuanced, and elastic — enables us to meaningfully absorb what our brains take in. Language helps us to decode and make sense of the world, and recode the information for imaginatively different purposes and gain. To interpret and reinterpret the assembly of information in order to shape the mind’s new perspectives on what’s real — well, at least the glowing embers of what’s real — in ways that may be shared to benefit humankind on a global, community, and individual level. Synaptic-like, social connections of which we are an integral part.

Fittingly, we see ourselves simultaneously as points connected to others, while also as distinct identities for which language proves essential in tangibly describing how we self-identify. Human nature is such that we have individual and communal stakes. The larger scaffolding is the singularly different cultures where we dwell, find our place, and seek meaning — a dynamically frothing environment, where we both react to and shape culture, with its assortment of both durably lasting and other times shifting norms.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Picture Post #53 Buckled Rails

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Buckled railway line near Glasgow, 25 June 2018.

The thermal expansion of railway lines is governed most simply by the formula

Δ L ≈ α L Δ T

This formula failed near Glasgow on 25 June 2018, when railway lines buckled in the heat. In fact they buckled in heatwaves all across Europe in the 2010s.  Why?  The answer is simple.  This formula, and versions of it, failed to include environmental factors—at least, not those which mattered.

It is not only railway lines which buckle.  Oceans are polluted, glaciers retreat, bees are poisoned, toads go blind, groundwater is poisoned, people suffocate—in fact, thousands if not millions of things go wrong besides—all without their being included in the formulae.

Here is the problem.  We take at face value that physical laws are true of this world.  It is the heresy of Plato.  Ordinary things, held Plato, imitate forms.  We hold up forms to reality, which is formulae: 'This is how it is!'  It is not.  And so the world is continually bedevilled by negative consequences.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Doublethink #28 Planetary Domains

Pi is pleased to present another bonus episode of
 Youngjin Kang's Doublethink

Monday, 20 January 2020

Environmental Ethics and Climate Change

Posted by Keith Tidman

The signals of a degrading environment are many and on an existential scale, imperilling the world’s ecosystems. Rising surface temperature. Warming oceans. Sinking Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Glacial retreat. Decreased snow cover. Sea-level rise. Declining Arctic sea ice. Increased atmospheric water vapour. Permafrost thawing. Ocean acidification. And not least, supercharged weather events (more often, longer lasting, more intense).

Proxy (indirect) measurements — ice cores, tree rings, corals, ocean sediment — of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that plays an important role in creating the greenhouse effect on Earth, have spiked dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The measurements underscore that the recent increase far exceeds the natural ups and downs of the previous several hundred thousand years. Human activity — use of fossil fuels to generate energy and run industry, deforestation, cement production, land use changes, modes of travel, and much more — continues to be the accelerant.

The reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contributed to by some 1,300 independent scientists and other researchers from more than 190 countries worldwide, reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides ‘have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years’. The level of certainty of human activity being the leading cause, referred to as anthropogenic cause, has been placed at more than 95 percent.

That probability figure has legs, in terms of scientific method. Early logical positivists like A.J. Ayer had asserted that for validity, a scientific proposition must be capable of proof — that is, ‘verification’. Later, however, Karl Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, argued that in the case of verification, no number of observations can be conclusive. As Popper said, no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white. (Lo and behold, a black swan shows up.) Instead, Popper said, the scientific test must be whether in principle the proposition can be disproved — referred to as ‘falsification’. Perhaps, then, the appropriate test is not ability to prove that mankind has affected the Earth’s climate; rather, it’s incumbent upon challengers to disprove (falsify) such claims. Something that  hasn’t happened and likely never will.

As for the ethics of human intervention into the environment, utilitarianism is the usual measure. That is to say, the consequences of human activity upon the environment govern the ethical judgments one makes of behavioural outcomes to nature. However, we must be cautious not to translate consequences solely in terms of benefits or disadvantages to humankind’s welfare; our welfare appropriately matters, of course, but not to the exclusion of all else in our environment. A bias to which we have often repeatedly succumbed.

The danger of such skewed calculations may be in sliding into what the philosopher Peter Singer coined ‘speciesism’. This is where, hierarchically, we place the worth of humans above all else in nature, as if the latter is solely at our beck and call. This anthropocentric favouring of ourselves is, I suggest, arbitrary and too narrow. The bias is also arguably misguided, especially if it disregards other species — depriving them of autonomy and inherent rights — irrespective of the sophistication of their consciousness. To this point, the 18th/19th-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham asserted, ‘Can [animals] feel? If they can, then they deserve moral consideration’.

Assuredly, human beings are endowed with cognition that’s in many ways vastly more sophisticated than that of other species. Yet, without lapsing into speciesism, there seem to be distinct limits to the comparison, to avoid committing what’s referred to as a ‘category mistake’ — in this instance, assigning qualities to species (from orangutans and porpoises to snails and amoebas) that belong only to humans. In other words, an overwrought egalitarianism. Importantly, however, that’s not the be-all of the issue. Our planet is teeming not just with life, but with other features — from mountains to oceans to rainforest — that are arguably more than mere accouterments for simply enriching our existence. Such features have ‘intrinsic’ or inherent value — that is, they have independent value, apart from the utilitarianism of satisfying our needs and wants.

For perspective, perhaps it would be better to regard humans as nodes in what we consider a complex ‘bionet’. We are integral to nature; nature is integral to us; in their entirety, the two are indissoluble. Hence, while skirting implications of panpsychism — where everything material is thought to have at least an element of consciousness — there should be prima facie respect for all creation: from animate to inanimate. These elements have more than just the ‘instrumental’ value of satisfying the purposes of humans; all of nature is itself intrinsically the ends, not merely the means. Considerations of aesthetics, culture, and science, though important and necessary, aren’t sufficient.

As such, there is an intrinsic moral imperative not only to preserve Earth, but for it and us jointly to flourish — per Aristotle’s notion of ‘virtue’, with respect and care, including for the natural world. It’s a holistic view that concedes, on both the utilitarian and intrinsic sides of the moral equation, mutually serving roles. This position accordingly pushes back against the hubristic idea that human-centricism makes sense if the rest of nature collectively amounts only to a backstage for our purposes. That is, a backstage that provides us with a handy venue where we act out our roles, whose circumstances we try to manage (sometimes ham-fistedly) for self-satisfying purposes, where we tinker ostensibly to improve, and whose worth (virtue) we believe we’re in a position to judge rationally and bias-free.

It’s worth reflecting on a thought experiment, dubbed ‘the last man’, that the Australian philosopher Richard Routley introduced in the 1970s. He envisioned a single person surviving ‘the collapse of the world system’, choosing to go about eliminating ‘every living thing, animal and plant’, knowing that there’s no other person alive to be affected. Routley concluded that ‘one does not have to be committed to esoteric values to regard Mr. Last Man as behaving badly’. Whether Last Man was, or wasn’t, behaving unethically goes to the heart of intrinsic versus utilitarian values regarding nature —and presumptions about human supremacy in that larger calculus.

Groups like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have laid down markers as to tipping points beyond which extreme weather events might lead to disastrously runaway effects on the environment and humanity. Instincts related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — where people rapaciously consume natural resources and pollute, disregarding the good of humanity at large — have not yet been surmounted. That some other person, or other community, or other country will shoulder accountability for turning back the wave of environmental destruction and the upward-spiking curve of climate extremes has hampered the adequacy of attempted progress. Nature has thrown down the gauntlet. Will humanity pick it up in time?

Monday, 13 January 2020

A Modest Proposal for Science

Posted by Andrew Porter

For several centuries, modern science has banked on and prided itself in ‘the scientific method’. This scheme of hypothesis and experiment has been useful and effective in countering superstition. Discoveries of all sorts have been made and verified, from the circumference of orbits to the range of elements to the function of organelles and proteins in a cell. Confirmation from experiment seems like a clear way to separate fact from fiction. But it is crucial to note that the scientific method also fails.

Recent conundrums of physicality, consciousness, entanglement, dark matter, and the nature of natural laws have spurred many to rethink assumptions and even findings. Our search for what is real and natural needs a new method, one that is in keeping with the natural facts themselves – natural facts not as reduced or squeezed or contorted by the scientific method, but as their own holistic selves. The method of approach and apprehending that seems to offer the most promising advance is that which consists of a whole person in a whole natural environment.

Why do I emphasise wholeness? Because facts shrink away at the first sign of partiality or limited agenda. Truth, conversely, tends to open itself to an apt seeker, to a method that goes whole at a host of levels. Nature tends to recognise her own, it seems.

Kristin Coyne, in an article called ‘Science on the Edge’ in the February 17, 2017 issue of the magazine, Fields: Science, Discovery & Magnetism, writes:
‘At the dividing line between two things, there’s often no hard line at all. Rather, there’s a system, phenomenon or region rich in diversity or novel behavior – something entirely different from the two things that created it.’
She offers various examples of the same: fringe physics, borderline biology, and crossover chemistry. Such ‘science on the edge’ is one aspect of the changes typical science is undergoing. Other researchers in areas such as telepathy and theoretical physics are pushing the bounds of science while arguing that it certainly is science, just a deeper form.

This suggested new method, that would largely overturn contemporary science, would measure, as it were, by that of nature’s measurements: it is anti-reductionist; it is synthetic more than analytic. As we are learning, it may not be too much to say that one has to be the facts to know the facts, to be a synergy of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’ at all levels. The knowledge gleaned from wholeness is like a star’s heat and light understood, not just the hydrogen and helium involved.

This idea of the ‘scientist’ in tune with nature in a thorough way would be the human equivalent of a goshawk whose instincts are a portion of Earth-wide wildness. No disjunct with results that turn self-referential and untrue. If one is studying an ecosystem, for instance, he or she, or his or her team, must, by the requirements of nature, be of the same stuff and of the same conceptions as the individualities, relations, and wholes of that ecosystem. So much more of the actuality reveals itself to the sympathetic, of-a-piece ‘observer’. If we ignore or shunt aside the question of what is a whole person, how can we ever expect to discern the deeper reality of nature?

It seems to hold true that the more receptive the subject is to the essence and character of the object, the better it is understood. Who knows one’s dog better: a sympathetic owner or an objective voice? If the dog is sick, perhaps the latter, but all the time the dog is exuberantly healthy, the former is the one who comprehends.

The goal, of course, is to elucidate facts, to unite in some meaningful way with reality. Delusion is all too easy, and partial truths sustain centuries of institutions, positions, governments, and cultures. Modern science started out as reactionary in the sense of being hostile to things like superstition or intuition or revelation. It substituted experiment and observation, keeping the studied apart from those who studied. This is fine for shallow comprehension, but it only gets you so far. It obscures another possibility, that is somewhat similar to the communion and connection between the quantum realm and the macro world.

I suggest that deep facts only reveal themselves to a person metamorphosed, as it were, into ways of being in keeping with the parts or portions of nature studied. All nature may be of this type, open to human comprehension only as that comprehension is within a whole person. What a complete person is and what a fullness of nature is might not only be a philosopher’s job, but the focus of science itself, re-trained to benefit from its transformed method.

The hint in current puzzlements is that science in the 21st century and beyond may benefit significantly by re-crafting itself. A transformed method might yield deeper or actual knowledge. That is, knowing as opposed to seeming to know, may require a new approach.

Jacob Needleman and David Applebaum wrote, ‘Unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.’

The ‘objective’ revolution need not be the last. In today’s world, we have the ball-and-chain of modern scientific ways and even scientism weighting our thinking; it would be good to free ourselves from this. But we are confused. About what of objectivity is liberating or limiting, and what of subjectivity is useful or obfuscatory.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Picture Post #52 - The Township

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Hastily boarded-up window 
at New Rest, in South Africa's Eastern Cape
It is hard to know where to begin, describing the township here.

Many houses, the doors or windows have been taken. Including the neighbour's, twice. Severely damaged through crime, he put in reinforced concrete frames. It did no good. They made off with his ceiling, plumbing, and much of the plaster, too. Every second house, broken glass is replaced with broken boards, carpet tiles, plastic.

A resident came round yesterday. Someone tried to batter down his door, he said, when he was in bed. The door was ruined, but they didn't get in. He armed himself. Then a sergeant came round. If they found someone dead on his floor, he said, he would go straight to jail. My host sleeps with a loaded rifle next to his bed.

A few nights ago, criminals mounted a vast raid on a group of townships, including this one. I had two locks on my car damaged. A friend had a window smashed, too. The same day, in front of me, a man flew off a pickup truck which swerved recklessly to avoid potholes, and those are filled with water from broken pipes. He hit the tar at speed, and lay motionless in a storm gutter. I was the only one to help him, and was astonished that he could (slowly) get up, although he was bloodied all over.

Plastic waste tumbles down the hillsides, and recently carved ravines scar the earth. People are gaunt, their teeth are out, their clothes are ragged. Even the neighbour came begging for bread.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Canvassing the Evidence with Hume

Posted by Allister Marran
I have seen it a hundred times, with people both close to me and those who are simply on the periphery of my social orbit.
The recipe is simple. Take someone with a very slight lean or interest towards an ideology, interest or political affiliation and then attack them for this belief. Show them their folly and use reason and facts to challenge their personal choices.

Fence sitters may fall either way, sometimes adjusting their world view to come into line with the group pressuring them, or more likely they begin stoically digging in and taking a more active interest in what previously was only a minor distraction.

Very quickly you will radicalise the very people you are trying to deprogram.

 The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote,
‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’
And, hardly remembered, he wrote in the same paragraph, 
'Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse.’
When a person feels cornered they feel immense cognitive dissonance, and usually revert back to an instinctual basic point of reference. This includes feelings of anger, aggression, confusion and often bigotry, as one turns to similar minded people and groups to defend oneself in an us vs. them strategy.

Russia and China (among others) are looking for a competitive advantage in the world, and are struggling to find traction and relevance when on a level footing with established democratic countries and capitalist trading blocks.

They have realised that they can leverage social media to destabilise Western democracy and use the confusion and chaos to up their own standing economically and politically.

All they have done is use a Twitter bot army and a few strategically placed and paid for Facebook campaigns to decimate social cohesion in the west.

Let me tell you, Russia has no interest in who wins the US election, or who is the UK Prime Minister. They just want the citizens of the old democratic order fighting amongst each other.

Mission accomplished.

In retrospect, maybe they should not have pursued President Trump's impeachment, but rather Republicans and Democrats should have passed laws to stop the radicalisation of splinter groups through social media. Fight Russia through unity instead of division.

If you look at the world and see where radicalisation ends in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Syria and many other countries with massive disenfranchised and radicalised populations or minorities, it's easy to see how minor policy disagreements and political disparities could end up escalating into something far worse, akin to a civil war or revolution.

What would Hume have said to it all, the philosopher of whom the economist Adam Smith thought of as 'approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man' as he thought possible? 

Hume was wary of contrary impulses, of the kind we have just surveyed. He wrote,
‘Does a man of sense ... canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.’
Hume might have told us to make an end to the contest over people's opinions. There are more important things to do, which are dealt with more profitably and practically. It's time to move on.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Poetry: The Mathematical State of Love

Posted by Chengde Chen *

Some say love is mathematically positive
Like the state of ‘having’
Because only those who have can give
Man can love because he has feelings
God can love because He has power

Some say love is mathematically negative
Like the state of ‘owing’
The deeper one loves, the more one owes
Hence parents’ willing and uncomplaining
And lovers’ risking death for one another

In fact, the mathematical state of love is zero
When you are not giving, it doesn’t exist
When you are giving, it doesn’t decrease
Whether by multiplication or by division
It turns what is not into itself

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Redefining Race: It’s Collaboration That Counts

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Historically, under the category of race, White colonisers of Africa used race for greed and exploitation, enslaving the continent's Black races for innumerable reasons, such as labour, land, resources, pleasure, etc.
While it is true that Arab races exploited Black races, and Black exploited Arab – and Black exploited Black, and so on – a mere cursory look at the colonial map of Africa reveals that most Black races were dominated by White colonisers, and as a result were exploited by them. There were (arguably) just two exceptions: Ethiopia and Liberia.

While the colonial era now lies behind us in Africa – at least in its overt forms – racial prejudice continues to be a major issue. As we approach the 20s of the 20s decade in the Common Era, we come to realise that racial superiority, if not domination, has continued in the form of individualism.

I propose that collaboration is the true opposite of racism, while a failure to collaborate is its chief characteristic.

Race, like all the causes of prejudice, is merely a classificatory term, a social construct, rather than a genuine biological category. It indicates a group which is characterised by closeness of common descent, and some shared physical distinctiveness such as colour of skin – but can this still be relevant when one speaks in terms of collaboration?  Collaboration is concrete.  It advances beyond the theoretical constructs of race, and gives us a measurable and meaningful term.  It is a concept we can work with.

Presently, in Africa, including my own nation South Africa, the category of race is used as a tool for redress. However, we find a failure to measure its success. This begs the question – is the concept of race effective, or is it a hindrance to progress?  If there is one thing about race, it is that your individual fortunes can be turned in the direction you wish – if you know how to bargain with it – and those who know how to bargain with it use it to lay a solid foundation for their fortunes.

It is great to admire the beauty of your ethnicity, but to do it at the expense of diminishing another uncovers insecurities about your own successes and failures. The agenda which puts Black races on their own should be torn to shreds, because the truth is that everyone is on their own. The only difference between each ethnicity is collaboration.  This is the level where true non-racialism is measured.

It seems as if real interracial collaboration faded with the struggle for independence and self-determination. The chances of having a genuine partnership for empowerment, or to fight a system of oppression with a person of your opposite race, was higher during the tough times, compared to the present. Times are still tough economically, politically, and socially, but behind the curtain of some delusionary interracial collaborations, we find terms and conditions that do not move us forward.

In his book of 1725, Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth, Isaac Watts says,
‘Do not always imagine that there are ideas wheresoever there are names; for though mankind hath so many millions of ideas more than they have of names, yet so foolish and lavish are we, that too often we use some words in mere waste, and have no ideas for them; or at least our ideas are so exceedingly scattered and confused, broken and blended, various and unsettled, that they can signify nothing toward the improvement of the understanding.’
Race is an issue – along with other forms of prejudice – where concepts are used ‘in mere waste’. We attach a lot of ideas to mere words. Some of these words have no real definition which belongs to them. What then are the concepts which really matter? In the case of ‘racism’, it is about collaboration, above all.

This is how we should define the issue going forward. This is the true opposite of racial prejudice. In everything we do, from day to day, we should keep this first and foremost.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Is Torture Morally Defensible?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Far from being unconscionable, today one metric of how societies have universalised torture is that, according to Amnesty International, some 140 countries resort to it: whether for use by domestic police, intelligence agencies, military forces, or other institutions. Incongruously, many of these countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the one that forbids torture, whether domestic or outsourced to countries where torture is legal (by so-called renditions).

Philosophers too are ambivalent, conjuring up difficult scenarios in which torture seems somehow the only reasonable response:
An anarchist knows the whereabouts of a powerful bomb set to kill scores of civilians.
A kidnapper has hidden a four-year-old in a makeshift underground box, holding out for a ransom.
Or perhaps an authoritarian government, feeling threatened, has identified the ringleader of swelling political street opposition, and wants to know his accomplices’ names. Soldiers have a high-ranking captive, who knows details of the enemy’s plans to launch a counteroffensive. A kingpin drug supplier, and his metastasized network of street traffickers, routinely distributes highly contaminated drugs, resulting in a rash of deaths...

Do any of these hypothetical and real-world events, where information needs to be extracted for urgent purposes, rise to the level of resorting to torture? Are there other examples to which society ought morally consent to torture? If so, for what purposes? Or is torture never morally justified?

One common opinion is that if the outcome of torture is information that saves innocent lives, the practice is morally justified. I would argue that there are at least three aspects to this claim:
  • the multiple lives that will be saved (traded off against the fewer), sometimes referred to as ‘instrumental harm’; 
  • the collective innocence, in contrast to any aspect of culpability, of those people saved from harm; and
  • the overall benefit to society, as best can credibly be predicted with information at hand.
The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous phrase that ‘It is the greatest good for the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong’ seems to apply here. Historically, many people have found, rightly or not, that this principle of ‘greatest good for the greater number’ rises to the level of common sense, as well as proving simpler to apply in establishing one’s own life doctrine than from competitive standards — such as discounting outcomes for chosen behaviours.

Other thinkers, such as Joseph Priestley (18th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century), expressed similar utilitarian arguments, though using the word ‘happiness’ rather than ‘benefit’. (Both terms might, however, strike one as equally cryptic.) Here, the standard of morality is not a rulebook rooted in solemnised creed, but a standard based in everyday principles of usefulness to the many. Torture, too, may be looked at in those lights, speaking to factors like human rights and dignity — or whether individuals, by virtue of the perceived threat, forfeit those rights.

Utilitarianism has been criticised, however, for its obtuse ‘the ends justify the means’ mentality — an approach complicated by the difficulty of predicting consequences. Similarly, some ‘bills of rights’ have attempted to provide pushback against the simple calculus of benefiting the greatest number. Instead, they advance legal positions aimed at protecting the welfare of the few (the minority) against the possible tyranny of the many (the majority). ‘Natural rights’ — the right to life and liberty — inform these protective constitutional provisions.

If torture is approved of in some situations — ‘extreme cases’ or ‘emergencies’, as society might tell itself — the bar in some cases might lower. As a possible fast track in remedying a threat — maybe an extra–judicial fast track — torture is tempting, especially when used ‘for defence’. However, the uneasiness is in torture turning into an obligation — if shrouded in an alleged moral imperative, perhaps to exploit a permissive legal system. This dynamic may prove alluring if society finds it expeditious to shoehorn more cases into the hard-to-parse ‘existential risk’.

What remains key is whether society can be trusted to make such grim moral choices — such as those requiring the resort to torture. This blurriness has propelled some toward an ‘absolutist’ stance, censuring torture in all circumstances. The French poet Charles Baudelaire felt that ‘Torture, as the art of discovering truth, is barbaric nonsense’. Paradoxically, however, absolutism in the total ban on torture might itself be regarded as immoral, if the result is death of a kidnapped child or of scores of civilians. That said, there’s no escaping the reality that torture inflicts pain (physical and/or mental), shreds human dignity, and curbs personal sovereignty. To some, many even, it thus must be viewed as reprehensible and irredeemable — decoupled from outcomes.

This is especially apparent if torture is administered to inflict pain, terrorise, humiliate, or dehumanise for purposes of deterrence or punishment. But even if torture is used to extract information — information perhaps vital, as per the scenarios listed at the beginning — there is a problem: the information acquired is suspect, tales invented just to stop pain. Long ago, Aristotle stressed this point, saying plainly: ‘Evidence from torture may be considered utterly untrustworthy’. Even absolutists, however, cannot skip being involved in defining what rises to the threshold of clearer-cut torture and what perhaps falls just below  grist for considerable contentious debate.

The question remains: can torture ever be justified? And, linked to this, which moral principles might society want to normalise? Is it true, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted, that ‘Torture is senseless violence, born in fear’? As societies grapple with these questions, they reduce the alternatives to two: blanket condemnation of torture (and acceptance of possible dire, even existential consequences of inaction); or instead acceptance of the utility of torture in certain situations, coupled with controversial claims about the correct definitions of the practice.

I would argue one might morally come down on the side of the defensible utility of the practice  albeit in agreed-upon circumstances (like some of those listed above), where human rights are robustly aired side by side with the exigent dangers, potential aftermaths of inertia, and hard choices societies face.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Picture Post #51: Nobody Excluded

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.' 

Paris, October 2019.
Picture credit: Olivia Galisson

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Activists draw attention to global ecological devastation in front of the fountain of Place du Châtelet. This monument was ordered by Napoleon in 1806, and built by the sculptor Boizet. It pays tribute to the victories achieved in battle, and reminds us of Napoleon’s decision to provide free drinking water to all Parisians.

Victories bring along statues, which serve historical commemoration -- though foremost, symbolically, they are built upon the idea of a future. A future that, seen from a once-upon-a-time perspective, might not have been that imaginable, as to how it would turn out.

The beginning of the world alike the end is not new to our imagination. But things have changed. We have interfered too much in the flux of ecology, for profit. We might think we are smart, but how smart we truly are will have to be proven. For neither rage nor love might provide a statue to remember.

This planet does not care about our extinction. Though we are this planet -- for without it, we simply wouldn’t be. This is not new to our imagination. More recent, instead, is the question whether our extinction is truly a problem, or do we make it a problem because we have created a mess? This time, what is foreseen is that nobody is excluded.

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