Should philosophers be squashed? Here's a website where you can see if they still make sense after squashing: Squashed Philosophers
Life is short and Philosophy is long, so perhaps it makes sense. My own approach has been to provide short critical summaries that might entice the reader to go back to the primary source in my book Philosophy: The Classics. I've podcast 15 chapters of this (you can listen to or download these 15 episodes here or get them from iTunes - both free)...but stopped short of releasing all 27 chapters in this form in case people stopped buying the book.
Peter Singer has described James Garvey's new book, The Ethics of Climate Change, as 'a model of philosophical reasoning about one of the greatest challenges any generation has ever faced.' In this interview for Virtual Philosopher he outlines some of the key themes of the book.
Nigel: Why did you write this book? What is its main message?
James: I wrote the book to help people into thinking about the ethical dimension of reflection on climate change. There’s a great deal written concerning action on climate change, but often it’s from a scientific or economic or political point of view. All of that matters, but climate change presents us with a host of moral problems. Getting those in plain sight is part of the point of the book. What we do about our changing planet depends a lot on what we value, on what we think is morally right.
Nigel: What are the most serious likely effects of climate change in the next 50 years?
James: In addition to more extreme weather, the most serious effects probably have to do with food and water. In Africa, for example, 250 million people will have trouble finding enough water by 2020. As glaciers recede in the Himalayas, as many as a billion people in Asia will run short of water by 2050. Farming will suffer accordingly. There’s a lot of unpleasantness on the cards if we fail to act now.
Nigel: What do you think we should do about this? Where does the force of the moral claim come from?
James: The moral demand for action on climate change has three sources. If you think a little about the history of greenhouse gas emissions, you can come to the conclusion, pretty swiftly, that the industrialized world has done the most damage to the climate and therefore has the largest responsibility to take meaningful action on climate change. ‘Meaningful action’ means large reductions to emissions and stumping up something to help with adaptation all over the world.
If you think about present entitlements and capacities, you can arrive at the thought that the West currently uses more than its fair share of the carbon sinks of the world. Thoughts about corrective or compensatory justice issue in the conclusion that the West should take action on climate change, nudge the uses of resources nearer to equality. The West also is best-placed to make reductions – it has more room for reduction, more economic power, better technology, and on an on than the poorer countries on the planet.
If you think about the future, about sustainability, you can come around to the uncomfortable conclusion that everyone on the planet has a kind of obligation to leave a hospitable world in her wake. It’s uncomfortable, because it’s easy to bang on about the moral obligations of the rich, but reflection on sustainability seems to place demands on everyone, even those in developing countries whose lives are just getting tolerable.
Bernard Suits's The Grasshopper is a brilliant investigation of the nature of games and play that deserves to be much better known than it is. I've already posted a brief review of it here that has generated some discussion. Although it was first published in 1978, it is only recently that philosophers in Britain have started to become aware of it.
Tom Hurka, who wrote the introduction to the Broadview edition of the book, and who knew Suits (Suits sadly, died earlier this year) very kindly agreed to be interviewed for Virtual Philosopher about The Grasshopper. Hurka's recent article 'Games and the Good' (Arist. Soc. 2006) builds on Suits's ideas.
Nigel: Bernard Suits' book The Grasshopper is on the verge of becoming a cult book in the UK as eminent philosophers such as Simon Blackburn and G.A. Cohen are praising it highly. I was delighted to discover it and wish I'd come across it ten years ago. What do you think are the chief virtues of the book?
Tom: The Grasshopper's chief virtues? I'd say the incisiveness and depth of its philosophical content, the contrast between that and its light, whimsical style, and then actually the harmony between the book's content and style. It's both philosophically profound and a literary masterpiece.
Shall I elaborate a bit? The bulk of The Grasshopper defends an analysis of the concept of playing a game - the very concept that was Wittgenstein's prime example of one that can't be analyzed. Yet Suits's definition is both persuasive and tremendously illuminating. It's the best piece of conceptual analysis I know. The book then argues for the central place of game-playing in a good human life, arguing that in a utopia where all instrumental goods are supplied, people's prime activity would be playing games. This is philosophically very deep. As I've argued in my 'Games and the Good' paper, it gives the clearest expression of what I call modern as against classical values. It's when you have Suits's definition of a game in hand that you understand most clearly what, say, Marx and Nietzsche had in mind when they proposed their visions of the good life, and how those differ from a classical view like Aristotle's.
So that's the book's content. But its style is playful and even hilarious: on many pages you laugh out loud. It's written as a dialogue between the Grasshopper of Aesop's fable, who's about to die because he spent the summer playing games rather than gathering food, and his disciples, who try to refute his views but are always persuaded they're wrong. So it's a multi-level loving parody of a Socratic dialogue. And it's full of whimsy. To make his philosophical points the Grasshopper invents different fantasies - about two retired generals in a Black Sea port trying to play a game without rules, about a bowler-hatted Englishman atop Mt. Everest, about the greatest spy in history.
That's the contrast: between the profundity of the content and the dancing lightness of the style. (Nietzsche would so approve!) But then there isn't really a contrast. What else should a book about games be except a game, or itself an instance of play? There are bits in Shakespeare - my favourite is the debate about flowers in The Winter's Tale - where a great many different things are going on at once without getting in each other's way. The Grasshopper's like that. There aren't many philosophy books you'd like to read on a beach or give as a Christmas present. This is one.
It feels as if we are on the verge of a major shift to digital books (see my earlier thoughts on this), though I'm not sure that the Amazon Kindle will be the catalyst here (from the photographs, it doesn't have the design elegance of anything that Steve Jobs produces for Apple). The digitization of millions of books by Google is clearly going to affect all readers one way or another (even those who like to read from paper - since print on demand is clearly a more efficient process than storing tons of printed books and then pulping a percentage of them). There is an interesting article by Jonathan V. Last called 'Google and Its Enemies' which summarises the main issues nicely. What usually gets left out of breathless sci-fi pieces about the digital book revolution is the effect on writers. Whilst research gets easier, getting paid for writing gets more complicated, and in most cases much tougher. Or else the future is presented as a world in which everything can be downloaded for nothing. With large players like Google prepared simply to ignore existing copyright legislation and widespread copyright infringement on the Web, long-tail writers could be in for lean times...What writers need is fair payment for use. That will keep us writing. Collective licensing of the kind administered by ALCS is probably our best bet.
Meanwhile I'm trying to train myself to read more on screen since the illiterate of the future may well be those retros who refuse to deal with anything except paper. I've found www.dailylit.com very useful in this respect.