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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Narcissus in Chains by Laurell K. Hamilton

Vampire hunter and Necromancer Anita Blake returns to St Louis after her adventures in New Mexico. But before she can get any rest – or sort out her complicated love life - she’s thrown into another crisis in the Supernatural Community. A new player is in town looking to dominate the world of shape-shifters. Anita must protect her own pack of were-leopards as well as save her werewolf boyfriend from internal enemies and from his own nature. If things aren’t complicated enough Anita’s powers are growing and may be uncontrollable and then there’s Micah, a were-leopard with his own agenda. Only one thing is certain, that in the next few days people are going to die; the only question is who.

This is the 10th book in the Anita Blake series which makes it my longest running set of books – previously held by Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Unfortunately this book was rather poor. Actually if this was the first book in the series it’s likely that I wouldn’t have read any others.

One of the major problems with book 10 was that for at least the first 200 pages very little actually happens. The reasons for what actually does happen in the first third of the book are explained later but I could see no reason why LKH took so damned long to get around to the point. There was also far too much sex (both normal and sadomasochistic) and too many long conversations which inevitable stopped any storytelling dead.

When the action finally got off the ground though it was pretty good but failed to compensate for the long slow path getting there. As a main character Anita Blake is priceless and I put up with a lot in this book because of her. But LKH really needs to go with Anita’s strengths and drastically cut back on the sex, torture and pissing contests between the main characters. I think it will be a while before I read the next book in this series. Very disappointing.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Video Time.

Another fascinating advert - and not a bad tipple either.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chief doctor calls for organ donation by default

By Sarah Boseley for The Guardian

Tuesday July 17, 2007

Doctors should be able to assume that patients who die will donate their heart, lungs and other organs, unless they specifically opt out during their lifetime, the government's chief medical officer recommended today. Sir Liam Donaldson's proposal is aimed at cutting the number of people who die while on the waiting list for a transplant. "We have something of a crisis in this country," he said at a briefing today. "Every day at least one patient dies while on the transplant waiting list. There are something like 7,000 people on the waiting list at any one time. There is a shortage of organs in this country and the situation is getting worse."

Sir Liam said he hoped the measure would be as successful as in Spain, which introduced an "opt-out" system for organ donation at the same time as appointing dedicated transplant coordinators in hospitals, leading to soaring donations and a shorter waiting list for transplants. All those who did not wish to donate, on religious or other grounds, would be able to register their refusal, said Sir Liam. Whether they would carry a card confirming this was a matter for later discussion. The British Medical Association backs an opt-out scheme, but the House of Commons recently rejected the idea during extensive debate over the passage of the Human Tissue Act. Sir Liam is an authoritative voice in the medical establishment, and claims the public would support the change, but it is unclear whether he would get political backing.

[How is it possible to have ‘presumed’ consent for organ removal? Isn’t consent supposed to be a voluntary – and informed – act? If the justification for such presumption is that the majority of people wish to donate their organs then why don’t the majority sign the relevant bits of paper (or make a Will expressing their consent) to make it happen? Why must everyone have presumed to have consented unless we take the effort to opt out?

I actually find the concept of presumed consent to be both immoral and deeply disturbing. How is this concept meant to be any less than viewing the general population as mere cattle to be harvested when the need arises? Should we also presume that people will consent to donations of blood while they are still alive? Maybe we should just set up local ‘blood databases’ so that hospitals can just arrive at your house or place of work take as much blood as they need and be on their way?

Presumed consent in these cases views humanity as a resource to be used as required. This is a very dangerous idea indeed. Once you stop treating people as people and start treating them as ‘happy meals on legs’ its difficult to know where or when to stop. Maybe we don’t need any kind of consent, presumed or otherwise. After all if important people are dying because of the lack of an organ and you happen to be compatible enough to donate one of your kidneys how could you possibly refuse? Happen to have a rare blood type – expect to be fitted with a GPS tracking device so you can have a pint or so siphoned off if someone needs it. Isn’t such an act part of your civic duty after all? Surely we all need to do what we can in these difficult times.

This is lazy bureaucratic nonsense. Rather then take the effort to get more people to actually consent to an action it appears to be far easier to create universal consent by fiat. If those in positions of power stopped treating us like idiots or children maybe they would get a great deal more respect from us and maybe also they would get our consent along with it.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 5)

By Julian Baggini

We can now return to the problems posed at the start of the previous section. If God isn't the source of morality, what is? I would suggest it is a basic concern for the welfare of others, a concern that is not based on rational argument but empathy and, for want of a better phrase, our shared humanity. The second problem was, if it is up to us to make our own moral choices, do these choices carry any moral weight? I would argue that they do, because if we recognize the need to think about the moral dimension to our actions, then morality has to matter. The fact that we are left with choices to make cannot make it matter any less. The seriousness of morality derives from the seriousness with which we take the need to account for the interests of others and ourselves. It does not derive from the system we use to help us take these interests into account. Morality's seriousness is not diminished if moral decisions are freely chosen by us rather than dictated to us by laws laid down in heaven.

The overall framework of my discussion in these articles has been the existentialist insight that we cannot avoid responsibility for the choices we make and that therefore we have to in some sense 'create' values for ourselves. The discussion has largely been about meta-ethics - the general nature, basis, and structure of morality. If we are to move on from here, however, and think about the specific content of morality - what we should actually do - we need to do some further thinking. What I am going to do next is simply sketch three broad approaches to moral reasoning that have been dominant in the history of Western philosophy. All of these demonstrate how rich secular discussions of ethics can be. They show how the resources of good moral reasoning are equally available to the atheist and the religious believer.

Rather than view these as rival theories, I suggest we should see them all as resources we can draw upon to help in our moral reasoning. Of course, a 'pick and mix' approach has severe limitations. Most notably, adopting one way of thinking about a moral problem might lead to a conclusion that is diametrically opposed to the conclusion reached by using another method. Nevertheless, all these approaches offer ways into moral thinking that can at least help us to think a little more about what is at stake. What we should not do is think that they are like little moral calculi that can be called into action to generate an appropriate response to any moral dilemma. Most introductory ethics classes in philosophy would distinguish between Aristotelian, Kantian, and Utilitarian ethics. However, since it is my claim that we can draw on all three and that we should not see them as hermetically sealed rival theories, I am going to focus on the distinctive features of each rather than consider them as complete theories. This will make it much easier to see how it is possible to draw on all three without loss of intellectual integrity. These three characteristics are the emphases on human flourishing, consequences, and the universal form of moral law.

[This is pretty much a bridging piece leading onto Baggini’s ideas of human flourishing, consequences and universal form in morality. Of which more later.]

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens

I’ve had a copy of Rights of Man by Thomas Paine on my bookshelf for sometime – as yet unread – and, as is my habit, decided to read about it before I read the actual text. If you feel the same way then this is an excellent place to start. Although I am somewhat ambivalent about Hitchens himself I must admit that he writes very well indeed.

In this book – part of a series entitled Books that Shook the World – Hitchens places Rights of Man in its historical and political context and explains how the book was in response to an earlier work by Edmund Burke which criticised the French Revolution. Involved in both the French and American revolutions Paine was in a superb position to comment on both and to spread the philosophy of democratic self rule. Quoting extensively from Rights itself (as well as Common Sense and Age of Reason) Hitchens clearly explains why Paine’s works were so explosive in an age of absolute Monarchy.

Told with passion and a sprinkling of humour this fairly short book has definitely encouraged me to dust off several of the political classics languishing on my bookshelves and to actually read them. I shall be reading more of Hitchens too.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Picture Time.

I really must see the Northen Lights before I die....

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Take the Revolutionary Road

by Michael Hardt for the Guardian

Thursday, July 5, 2007

It cannot but feel rather odd discussing Thomas Jefferson, who occupies such a central position in the US national pantheon, as a figure of modern revolutionary thought. For almost a century, after all, the United States government has served as the principal anti-revolutionary force in the world, striving to suppress revolutionary movements, openly plotting to overthrow successful revolutionary governments, and supporting surrogate counter-revolutionary forces in countries throughout the globe.

National political traditions, however, are not cut of whole cloth but rather contain sometimes surprising divergences and contradictions. The present anti-revolutionary vocation of the United States, in fact, makes it all the more interesting to find the thought of a revolutionary such as Jefferson at its core. When reading some of Jefferson’s most radical writings it is hard not to be struck by the vast gulf that separates his thinking from that of the current United States, its ideology, its constitution, and its political system and culture. After this initial surprise at the fact that Jefferson’s thought belongs to the revolutionary tradition, we should recognise how it still has important contributions to make, and can help us move beyond some of the central obstacles to thinking about revolution today.

Jefferson’s declarations of independence throughout his life not only mark the separation of the colonies from the colonial power but also, and more importantly, seek to keep alive the pursuit of freedom within society - striving to conceive of how the revolutionary process can continue indefinitely, how what 18th century revolutionaries called “public happiness” can be instituted in government, and ultimately how self-rule and democracy can be realized. Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Jefferson understands well that the revolutionary event, the rupture with the past and the destruction of the old regime, is not the end of the revolution but really only a beginning. The event opens a period of transition that aims at realizing the goals of the revolution. The concept of transition, however, is today a fundamental stumbling block of revolutionary thought and practice. The (often authoritarian) means employed during revolutionary transitions frequently conflict with and even contradict the desired (democratic) ends; moreover, these transitions never seem to come to an end. The travellers on the long journey through the desert end up getting completely lost, no nearer to the promised land, and that leader with a big stick starts looking a lot like the old Pharaoh.

In fact, whenever revolutionaries start talking to you about “transition” today, you had better watch out: they are probably trying to put one over on you. Jefferson’s thought, however, poses a novel conception of transition, which can help steer revolutionary thought around its current obstacles. He provocatively brings together, on the one hand, constitution and rebellion and, on the other, transition and democracy. The work of the revolution must continue incessantly, periodically reopening the constituent process, and the population must be trained in democracy through the practices of democracy. The first key to understanding Jefferson’s notion of transition is to recognize the continuous and dynamic relationship he poses between rebellion and constitution or, rather, between revolution and government. A conventional view of revolution conceives these terms in temporal sequence: rebellion is necessary to overthrow the old regime, but when it falls and the new government is formed, rebellion must cease.

In contrast to this view, Jefferson insists on the virtue and necessity of periodic rebellion - even against the newly formed government. The processes of constituent power must continually disrupt and force open an establishment of constituted power.

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

Rebellion against the government, he maintains, is so virtuous that it should not only be tolerated but even encouraged. Rebellion is not just a matter of correcting wrongs committed by the government, and thus only valuable if its cause is just; it has an intrinsic value, regardless of the justness of its specific grievances and goals. Periodic rebellion is necessary to guarantee the health of a society and preserve public freedom. “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” he writes. In Jefferson’s view, rebellion should not become our constant condition; rather, it should eternally return. By my calculation we are well overdue.

[Fascinating stuff. I must admit that I don’t know very much about the period of revolutionary politics in early American history. This Jefferson chap sounds like my kind of people. If I ever find a spare moment to read up on him and the period I must do so.]

Monday, September 17, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove

The Year is 1597 almost ten years after the successful invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. London lives under the heel of Spanish oppression and the depredations of the dreaded Inquisition. The showing dissent or any hesitation to Catholic rule means suspicion and possible torture or death. But a plot is underway to throw off Spanish rule and one man is chosen to light the touch paper that will ignite an entire nation in revolt. His name is William Shakespeare, a poet and playwright of some renown. He is commissioned in secret to write a play to stir the blood and the passions of Englishmen, to wake them from their slumber and to make them fall on their enemies like wolves. But such a quest is not without its dangers. Who can you trust in a world were your best friend could be an informer and where one mistake would result in the painful deaths of the entire company? But who could choose not to resist an occupying army in any way they can?

It took me quite a while to read this book probably because I was rather ill at the time. At 557 pages I thought it at least 100 if not 200 pages too long. One the whole it was a slow read that needed tightening up more than a little. HT also exhibited his irritating habit of repeating himself as if to ensure that the reader had grasped a particular point or recognised an important event. He wasn’t so bad in this stand alone volume but he can be particularly annoying in his long series work.

However, I did actually quite enjoy this book. The idea of an occupied England under Spanish Catholic rule is a fascinating one – though rather unlikely from what I know of the period. HT’s characters – as in his other works – were very good indeed. With his trade mark mix of real historical characters (I managed to recognise several of the names mentioned and was prompted to look up others) and literary inventions the author managed to bring alive Elizabethan England complete with, at times, fairly incomprehensible language which I admit took a good while getting used to. The play Shakespeare decided to write, based on the events of the Roman occupation and the uprising of the Ancient Britons led by Boudicca, was indeed uplifting and most certainly stirred this Englishman’s blood! If I had been in the theatres audience that day I’m confident that I would have happily thrown myself at the Spanish!

I think that there is great scope for espionage thrillers based in that time which would be very thrilling indeed and I thought it rather a shame that HT didn’t spend more time on that aspect of things. Reading this book – and several others around the same time – has prompted me (again) to read more English history which, sad to say, I know far too little about. So I guess the book did weave its magic in a way.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 4)

By Julian Baggini

So far I have argued that religion and morality are separate, and that even if you still think God is the main source of moral guidance, that does not mean you can avoid making choices about which moral principles to adopt for yourself. We need to go further, however, if we are to make a persuasive case that atheist morality is possible. It is not enough to show that religion cannot be the source of morality: we need to show what can be. It is not enough to show that we have to make moral choices for ourselves: we need to show that such choices carry moral weight.

When it comes to saying what the source of morality is, however, there are no easy answers. The difficulty can be seen by considering the strangeness of the question, "Why should I be moral?' This question can have two kinds of answer. One could provide a non-moral answer. For instance, one might say you ought to be moral because you will happier if you are or God will punish you if you are not. These are what we can call prudential reasons to be moral. The trouble is that sincerely believing in these reasons appears to undermine morality rather than support it. Acting morally, because it is one's own best interest to do so does not seem to be acting morally at all. Morality is about acting in the best interests of others and oneself.

However, if we give a moral answer to the question, such as "be moral because that's what you ought to do', we encounter the problem of circularity in our justification. Since the question is about why we ought to be moral at all, we cannot help ourselves to a moral reason as part of the answer, since that would beg the question. We can only offer a moral reason for action if we are already persuaded of the merits of morality. So we face a dilemma. If we want to know why we should be moral, our answer will either beg the question (if it offers a moral reason) or will undermine the morality of morality (if it offers a non-moral one). This is not just a problem for atheists. The same logic holds for everyone. The reasons to obey a God-given morality will either themselves be moral or non-moral, and thus the same problem is faced by the religious believer.

The existence of this problem is not an argument against morality, however. It is merely a caution against the expectation that one can hope to find a simple source for morality, a reason to be moral that every rational person should recognize. I would argue that such a source cannot be found. The best attempt to find such a source is the Kantian endeavour to show that acting morally is required by rationality, which we will look at shortly. But despite their inventiveness and ingenuity, such attempts do not, I think, ultimately succeed. What then can we put in place of such a source? I believe that at the very root of morality is a kind of empathy or concern for the welfare of others, a recognition that their welfare also counts. This is, for most of us, a basic human instinct. Total indifference to the welfare of others is not normal human behaviour, it is symptomatic of what we would normally call mental illness. Its most extreme form is that of the psychopath, who has no sense of the inner life of others at all. This recognition of the value of others is not a logical premise but a psychological one. If we accept it, then we have the starting point for all the thinking and reasoning about ethics that helps us to make better decisions and become better people. But the truth of the premise, the fundamental conviction that others do count, is not something that can be demonstrated by logic. This is part of what Hume was getting at when he said 'reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions'. Moral reasoning can only get going if we have a basic altruistic impulse to begin with.

I should briefly mention an alternative view, which is that we should just accept that the reasons to be moral are themselves non-moral. Morality, on this view, is a kind of enlightened self-interest. Recognizing this does undermine the romantic view that morality is about a lack of self-interest, but some argue it need not completely undermine morality. Giving money to charity, for example, is no less moral because it is done out of enlightened self-interest. What matters is that we act well. It need not matter that the ultimate justifications for so doing are selfish. I am not persuaded by this because it does seem to me to be an indispensable part of ethics that self-interest is not sovereign. At best, the view of morality as enlightened self-interest gives us reasons not to engage in antisocial behaviour or to do things that benefit us in the short run but have greater long-term costs. But that is not morality. Morality always contains the possibility of requiring one to act against one's own interests. If I am never prepared to sacrifice some self-interest, then I do not think I can ever be truly moral.

[I certainly agree with Baggini that there is no objective basis for morality but I’m not sure that a ‘natural feeling of empathy’ is enough to base morality on alone. I do, however, feel that empathy is a component of morality – maybe even an important one – but isn’t enough in itself to explain it. I’m also not convinced at Baggini’s dismissal of self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) as at least another component of morality. I may act in a moral fashion because it is indeed in my own best interests to do so. I don’t think that this would totally invalidate the moral nature of that action. Action against our self-interest may be more moral in this sense but again such actions are only part of what we think of as morality. I believe that to seek a single foundation for such a complex phenomenon is mistaken.]

Friday, September 14, 2007

UK general attacks US Iraq policy

From the BBC.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The head of the British army during the Iraq invasion has said US post-war policy was "intellectually bankrupt". In a Daily Telegraph interview, former chief of the general staff, Gen Sir Mike Jackson, added that US strategy had been "short-sighted". He said former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "one of the most responsible for the current situation".

The Ministry of Defence said Sir Mike was a private citizen who was entitled to express his views. The US Department of Defense said: "Divergent viewpoints are a hallmark of open, democratic societies."

Sir Mike told the Daily Telegraph that Mr Rumsfeld's claim that US forces "don't do nation-building" was "nonsensical". He criticised the decision to hand control of planning the administration of Iraq after the war to the Pentagon. He also described the disbanding of the Iraqi army and security forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as "very short-sighted". "We should have kept the Iraqi security services in being and put them under the command of the coalition," he said.

The Telegraph reports that in Sir Mike's autobiography Soldier, which is being serialised in the paper, he said the US approach to fighting global terrorism was "inadequate" as it focused on military power rather than diplomacy and nation-building. In the book, Sir Mike also said Mr Rumsfeld had refused to deploy enough troops to uphold law and order in Iraq and had rejected plans for administering Iraq drawn up by the US State Department, the paper says. The criticism comes as the US military said an order from radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to his Mehdi army militia to freeze operations for six months would allow coalition forces to concentrate their attentions on al-Qaeda. A US statement said the instruction would mean fewer kidnappings, killings and attacks.

Sir Mike, who is now retired, also defended the record of British troops in Iraq after claims by US officials that UK forces had failed. He said: "What has happened in the south, as throughout the rest of Iraq, was that primary responsibility for security would be handed to the Iraqis once the Iraqi authorities and the coalition were satisfied that their state of training and development was appropriate. "In the south we had responsibility for four provinces. Three of these have been handed over in accordance with that strategy. It remains just in Basra for that to happen." His comments follow a series of critical remarks from US officials about the British attitude towards Iraq.

US military adviser Gen Jack Keane said last week that American commanders had expressed "frustration" over the prospect of UK withdrawal. BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood said Sir Mike's comments may put further strain on the British-US operation in Iraq. Sir Mike's criticisms were backed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative foreign secretary and defence secretary. Sir Malcolm told the BBC: "I think one of the most fundamental criticisms is not just that Rumsfeld was incompetent - which he was - but it was actually his boss, George Bush, who actually made the extraordinary decision to put the Pentagon and Rumsfeld in control of political nation-building after the actual war ended." A spokeswoman for the US State Department said she would not comment on Sir Mike's views.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Sir Mike's remarks reinforced his view that British troops should leave Iraq as soon as is practically possible. He told BBC News 24 that Sir Mike was "a man well known for speaking his mind and not afraid to ruffle American feathers". Last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote to Mr Campbell, rejecting the Lib Dem leader's call for a timetable for withdrawing UK troops.

[And this from a man who should really know what’s going on in Iraq.]

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I actually had this on Amazon pre-order in hardback but have only just got around to reading it. I think that I was more than a little worried that such a book would ‘turn me off’ someone whom I respect a great deal. I have to admit that I have been less than impressed by his TV appearances decrying religion and all matter of superstition so you can understand my trepidation when I started reading.

Dawkins actually does a very good job of undercutting the arguments that have been presented in favour of Gods existence. We’ve heard them all before but he did present them well. I admit to enjoying some of his savagely sarcastic comments which I felt would have had many theists howling with indignation. Dawkins is, as we know, not one to pull any of his punches. After he had called into question the existence of God he then brought up some rather interesting speculations regarding the origins of the ‘religious impulse’. More interesting yet – and I felt the best section of the book – was his discussion of the evolution of morality. Until reading this section I was a pretty firm believer in the idea that morality is a predominantly cultural phenomenon. Now I’m not so sure. He certainly supplied me with enough food for thought to carry my investigations further on this topic. Rather inevitably I have already acquired several books on the subject (Yes, I know. I’m addicted to books).

What I don’t agree with – even after understanding it a bit better - is his proposition that bringing up a child in any particular religion is a form a child abuse. I do not think that this is anything like the case. I fully expect that parents will rather naturally bring up their children to believe pretty much what they do. If I had children I would certainly try to do so. Where I do agree with Dawkins is that filling children’s minds with images of the fires of hell (for example) because they quite naturally masturbate (for example) is a form of psychological abuse. But bringing up children in a more enlightened liberal tradition – without the hellfire and brimstone – is not abusive. I think that it is perpetuating a false and, as Dawkins rightly says, a delusional belief but it is not abusive to do so.

All in all despite the fact that (as I expected) Dawkins was ‘preaching to the choir’ in my case I still thought that this book was well worth a read. It’s written in a chatty fashion which makes the arguments easy to understand and he introduces lots of fascinating asides and titbits to entertain. I do think though that its apparent aim of making theists doubt their faith misses the mark by quite a lot. If I was a theist it might make me ponder on some things but I doubt very much if it was powerful enough to undermine my faith. It might just bring a few atheists ‘out of the closet’ but I really don’t think that it’s going to start an atheist revolution. Nice try though.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 3)

By Julian Baggini

I have already mentioned Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as a study of faith, but it is also a deep study in the inescapability of personal choice. It is this aspect of the work that is most responsible for Kierkegaard's reputation as the 'father of existentialism'. Existentialist thinkers are a pretty disparate bunch, comprising Christians, atheists, communists, fascists, free spirits, and pretty much everything in between. What unites them is a belief in the inescapability and centrality of individual choice and freedom in human life. Their message is that you are always making choices, even when you try and pretend that you have not chosen, and that these choices carry with them responsibility. For instance, I might try and avoid making a choice by asking someone else to choose for me. But this does not mean I haven't chosen, it just means my choice has moved from being directly about my final action to being about the means of making the selection. I cannot avoid my responsibility for what I go on to do: having chosen to follow the advice of someone else, I am as responsible for so doing as if I had chosen without that advice. After all, I could always choose to accept or reject the choice made for me.

Kierkegaard's retelling of the story of Abraham illustrates this point. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. On the divine command model of morality - that moral law comes directly from God - it seems that Abraham has no choice: he has to obey. But it would not be a great display of Abraham's faith and goodness if he just went ahead and killed his son without any thought at all. There are at least two choices he needs to make. The first is a kind of epistemological choice: he has to decide whether the command he has received is authentic. How can anyone know that what they seem to have been told by God is really an instruction from God and not one from an inner voice or an evil demon? The problem is that no evidence or logic can settle this question conclusively. At the end of the day Abraham has to decide whether he personally is convinced or not. That is his choice.

The second choice is a moral one: does he follow the command? In a wonderful Woody Allen short story, Abraham thinks the answer to this is obvious: To question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do.' However, when he goes ahead and takes his son to sacrifice, God is outraged that Abraham took his joke suggestion seriously. Abraham protests that at least his willingness to sacrifice his son shows he loves God. God replies that all it really proves is 'that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice'.

The Allen story is a comic retelling of Kierkegaard's philosophical retelling of the Bible story, and both make many of the same points. The most striking idea is that Abraham cannot evade his moral responsibility by simply following orders. We should be alert to this since the terrible human propensity to do awful things just as long as they are commanded by someone in authority was particularly evident in the 20th century. Abraham's choice to obey the order is not just a choice to accept or reject God's authority. It is a moral choice to decide whether what he is being asked to do is right or wrong. After all, surely it would not be right to do what God commanded (assuming you were satisfied that God really had commanded it) no matter what it was. If God asked you to lower an innocent person into acid inch by inch, killing them slowly in terrible pain, would that be okay? Of course it wouldn't. Religious believers are sure that God would never ask such a thing (although the Old Testament God does ask for some pretty bloodthirsty deeds to be carried out). But the point is not that God might ask people to do such a thing, it is that the hypothetical example shows that following or rejecting a command given to you by another, even God, is a matter of personal choice which carries moral responsibility.

The atheist and the believer are therefore in the same boat. Neither can avoid choosing which moral values to follow and taking responsibility for them. The atheist has the advantage, however, of being much more aware of this fact. It is easy for the religious believer to think that they can avoid choice just by listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men) and sacred texts. But since adopting this attitude can lead to suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that it does not absolve one of moral responsibility. So although the idea of individuals making moral choices for themselves may sound unpalatable to those used to thinking about morality deriving from a single authority, none of us can avoid making such choices.

[As Neo said in the Matrix Trilogy – It’s about choice. Without choice their can be no morality. Machines cannot be moral because they cannot choose their actions. Non-sentient animals cannot act in a moral or immoral way because they are not self aware enough to make moral choices. Take away choice and you take away responsibility, you take away accountability and you take away morality. But simply handing over your responsibility to another agency does not take away the responsibility for your actions. You still make choices even when you have decided to follow the choices of another. We are moral beings because we can choose to be so.]

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Life, Sex and Ideas – The Good Life Without God by A.C. Grayling

Professor Grayling presents a wide variety of topics in his own distinctive style. Covering areas as diverse as Emotion, Fasting, Sex, Profit, Capital Punishment and Madness Grayling outlines his naturalistic philosophy through the use of contemporary examples. The short essay format allows the reader to think about the many moral issues we have to contend with on a daily basis and provides a humanist foundation for living the Good Life.

Although interesting enough to read quickly I must admit that I was a little disappointed with this volume. I thought that Grayling had sacrificed depth for a scattergun approach to philosophy. The breadth of topics was I thought far too wide and disconnected to provide a coherent response to the question ‘How do I lead a Good Life’. I did actually agree with much that Grayling said in his book but found the short essay/chapter format frustrating. I felt that as a quick overview of Humanist thinking it was fair enough but needed more ‘meat’ in the arguments presented. It certainly hasn’t put me off reading more of his books – I have at least three on my shelves unread – but I would like him to produce more detailed discussions of his ideas in the future. A thought provoking read but not a life changing one.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Video Time.

I do love a clever advert - no matter what it's advertising.....

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bombing civilians is not only immoral, it's ineffective.

AC Grayling

Monday March 27, 2006

No one knows how many civilians have died violently in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. The most careful assessment, by the website Iraq Body Count, estimates at least 36,000. The true figure could be three times higher. The uncertainty is explained by General Tommy Franks' now-notorious remark, "We don't do body counts." Three interesting facts nevertheless help shape a sense of the possibilities. One is that the US forces insist that they use precision techniques to minimise "collateral damage". The second is that the coalition recently and controversially admitted using phosphorus weapons in its attack on Falluja. The third is that one of the US marine air wings operating in Iraq announced in a press release in November 2005 that since the invasion began it had dropped more than half a million tons of explosives on Iraq.

The felt inconsistency between the first fact and the other two reminds one that ever since the deliberate mass bombing of civilians in the second world war, and as a direct response to it, the international community has outlawed the practice. It first tried to do so in the fourth Geneva convention of 1949, but the UK and the US would not agree, since to do so would have been an admission of guilt for their systematic "area bombing" of German and Japanese civilians. But in 1977 a protocol was added to that convention at last outlawing civilian bombing, and the UK signed it. The US still has not done so. Because enough nations are signatories the protocol is now part of customary international law, putting the US out on a limb.

Looking at area bombing through the lens of the 1977 protocol explains why it has always been controversial. Even during the Second World War there was a vigorous campaign opposing area bombing, most strongly supported in places such as London and Coventry which had themselves been "blitzed". One of the campaign's leaders was Vera Brittain, whose pamphlet Seed of Chaos caused an outcry in the US; not having been bombed, it was enthusiastic about flattening enemy cities and their occupants. The Second World War bombing story is clouded by misunderstandings, largely because the victor nations, rightly condemning the far greater crimes committed by Nazism, have yet to inquire properly into aspects of their own behaviour. Confessing to a tactic which for decades before 1939 had been universally condemned as immoral, and which from early in the war was recognised as having little military value (and indeed perhaps the opposite), would have invited awkward questions about why it was done, and seemed unfair to the airmen whose extraordinary courage and sacrifice was called upon to carry it out.

Defenders of the area-bombing campaigns point out that losing the war against such wicked, dangerous enemies would have been the biggest immorality of all. They are right. But stooping to tactics as barbarous as those of the axis powers could only have been justified if there were no other arguably better ways of using the bombing weapon. It has been hypothesised that if allied bombing had been relentlessly focused on fuel and transport in Nazi-controlled Europe, the war would have been shorter by two years. To their credit, the Americans understood this and in Europe did not join the RAF in indiscriminate area bombing, but concentrated on these crucial assets. As a result they share with the Russian army the largest single credit for victory over Nazism. But when the US got within bombing range of Japan it adopted the RAF tactic with a vengeance, and in less than a year killed as many Japanese civilians as were killed in Germany in the entire war.

Details are more eloquent than statistics. Night after night, for years, the RAF rained upon Germany's cities a mixture of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, the latter outnumbering the former by four to one. The high explosives blew out windows, doors and roofs, allowing fires to spread. The incendiaries variously contained petroleum jelly, phosphorus and oil-soaked rags. When phosphorus splashed on to a human being, burning ferociously, it could not be dislodged. Victims leapt into canals, but the flames would spontaneously reignite when they clambered out. Among the bombs were time-delay devices, set to explode at intervals in the hours and days after a raid to disrupt ambulance, fire fighting and rescue services.

Compared to the weight and ferocity of RAF and US bombing, the Nazi "Blitz" and its V-rocket attacks of 1944 were small beer. Yet it was not allied civilian bombing that won the Second World War, any more than did "shock and awe" in Iraq in 2003. What both show is that bombing civilians is not only immoral, but ineffective. It takes nuclear weapons, delivering absolutely massive civilian extermination, to have the desired effect of reducing a people to submission; but employing such a tactic today would be self-defeating, for all it offers is victory over a radioactive wasteland. The main lesson of Second World War area bombing for the international community has been to define it as a war crime. Its main lesson for today's militaries, by contrast, appears to be: "Don't do body counts."

[War is a messy business. Unfortunately there will be civilian casualties. But what makes war more horrific and repugnant than it needs to be is the deliberate targeting of civilian populations. Such activities should rightly be considered war crimes. Even the deliberate disregard of non-combatant death and injury should also be considered a crime. Accidents happen even in the use of so-called Precision Guided Munitions but euphemistic 'collateral damage' should not simply be viewed as an acceptable facet of modern warfare. It is the role of armed forces to protect civilians from harm not to target them.]

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Few More Good Quotes:

I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking or defending. ~ Isaac Asimov

Incurably religious, that is the best way to describe the mental condition of so many people. ~ Thomas Edison

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. ~ Robert H. Jackson

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 2)

By Julian Baggini

To my mind, the Euthypryo dilemma (presented in Part 1) is a very powerful argument against the idea that God is required for morality. Indeed, it goes further and shows that God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary. There are attempts to wiggle off the prongs of the dilemma's forks, but like a trapped air bubble, pushing the problem down at one point only makes it resurface at another. For instance, some think the way out of the dilemma is to say that God just is good, so the question the dilemma poses is ill-formed. If God and good are the same thing then we cannot ask whether God chooses good because it is good - the very question separates what must come together. But the Euthypryo dilemma can be restated in another way to challenge this reply. We can ask, is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness? If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist. So we must choose the second option: God is good because he has all the properties of goodness. But this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. Hence there is no reason why a denial of God's existence would necessarily entail a denial of the existence of goodness.

Right and wrong, goodness and badness, thus do not depend on the existence of God. Indeed, in order for the idea that God is good to carry any moral force, ideas of goodness need to be independent of God. Otherwise, the distinction between right and wrong becomes arbitrary. How then do we account for the widespread belief that 'without God, anything is permitted'? I think we can trace this back to a misplaced view of morality which follows the legalistic model I outlined earlier. Our religious heritage has left us with a view of morality as a set of rules which we follow in order to be rewarded (eventually) and do not transgress in order to avoid punishment. No matter what is taught in Sunday schools about virtue's own rewards, the threats of punishment, more than promises of rewards even, have been most psychologically effective in getting people to rein in their baser instincts. To believe that God is always watching you and will punish you for any wrongdoing is a very good way of avoiding doing anything contrary to the Church's teachings.

Take away these threats, however, and what is to stop you doing something wrong? Without God, anything is permitted only in the sense that there is no divine authority who will make sure you are punished for any wrongdoing. But that is neither the end of morality nor the end of civilized behaviour. The joke about parking at the start of this article illustrates the point that human beings are just as able to make and enforce prohibitions as gods. Everything will be permitted only if we abandon ourselves to anarchy, and there is no reason why someone would want to do that just because they do not believe in God. More profoundly, it is an odd morality that thinks that one can only behave ethically if one does so out of fear of punishment or promise of reward. The person who doesn't steal only because they fear they will be caught is not a moral person, merely a prudent one. The truly moral person is the one who has the opportunity to steal without being caught but still does not do so. I have argued that morality and religious belief are separate. If I am right, then the average ethical atheist actually appears to have more moral merit than the average ethical religious believer. The reason for this is that religion, with its threat of punishment and promise of reward, introduces a non-moral incentive to be moral that is absent in atheism.

One perceived problem with a godless morality is the degree of personal choice it seems to leave the individual. If there is no single moral authority, then do we all become sovereigns of our own privatized moralities? Many find this worrying, but in fact individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not.