When my train to London was late yesterday, unusually for me, I took a taxi to get to my appointment. Perhaps my mistake was asking to be taken to Westminster, but instantly the taxi driver began a rant that gradually descended into racism. At times I wondered if I was in an Ali G spin-off and being taken for a ride in both senses - that pendant hanging from the mirror - did it have a concealed TV camera? Stephen Lawrence, he told me, must have said something to the people who killed him (though he agreed that wouldn't have justified murder) - his evidence: apparently Lawrence is giving the black power closed fist salute in all the photographs of him (this from someone who declared he doesn't read the newspapers or watch TV - so where does he see these photographs?) 'Why does one murder get all the attention' People are killed all the time.' (I tried rather feebly to point out that a racist murder has a symbolic value as well as the tragedy that it is for the individual and those he left behind).
In the course of a 15 minute ride he made comments about how he believed that black lesbians get preferential treatment when it comes to doing 'the knowledge', Eastern Europeans are the ones who rob cabbies at knife or gunpoint (no, it had never happened to him), and so on. He was a cheerful, friendly sort of man, and my attempts to stop the flow of racism by engaging him in a discussion of his prejudices were pathetic. I felt sullied by the whole experience, caught off-guard and weak at not confronting him more robustly...and possibly just getting him to stop the cab and get out. What really annoys me is that when I jumped out in heavy traffic I instinctively left a tip, despite my disgust at his views and disappointment about him matching up to the worst stereotypes of a London cabby - almost to the point of caricature (he even used the classic phrase 'what's it all about then?')...I'm still not absolutely sure I wasn't the victim of some kind of performance artist or reality TV stunt.
And then, again very unusually for me, I read Monday's The Daily Mail which was lying around at home (it was free at the gym) and while it's coverage of some topics fitted by stereotypical view of that newspaper, I was blown away by the leading letter to the editor: it was about Sartre's existentialism! Andew J. Smith from Roehampton University had written a clear response to a review of a prurient book about Sartre's and de Beauvoir's supposedly 'essential' relationship..He points out that, "far from being the 'bible or our licentious times'...existentialism is a philosophy which demands that all of us ask ourselves a very personal question: what gives my life meaning?" I don't agree with this as an encapsulation of Sartre's existentialism (since he answers that question rather than invites us to ask it - Sartre's answer is the choices I make, the sum of what I actually do). But how prejudiced of me not to expect to find existentialism being discussed in the letters page of the Daily Mail...
Contemporary Aesthetics is an online blind-reviewed high-quality free journal. This is a sensible way forward for academic journals - in Philosophy at least.
For many years journal publishers have been convincing philosophers to provide camera-ready copy, editorial support and give up their copyright in journal articles for no payment...Then their institutions would have to pay a high subscription. Not a great deal, given the large sums of money the publishers were making from the procedure...It is gratifying to see some philosophers seizing the means of production and by-passing publishers using this new technology.
Publishers of philosophy journals will have to offer more than they have done if they are going to compete with this sort of set up.
I interviewed Judge Richard Posner, author of an interesting book on Plagiarism (read my review here) for the Open University's Ethics Bites podcast. Unfortunately the ISDN line to Chicago was a bit crackly...There is also a transcript available.
Philosophers don't have a particularly good record when it comes to giving practical advice to politicians...Plato didn't manage to pull it off; Machiavelli never weasled his way back into a position of power after being dismissed (though most politicians read The Prince, whether or not they admit to it - and if they've read it closely, they shouldn't admit to it); Rousseau had a go at giving advice, but again it didn't really work; there are a number of philosophers in the British House of Lords, some of whom make very useful contributions to government, and quite a few British MPs have studied some philosophy (often PPE at Oxford), but on the whole philosophers underperform when it comes to impacting on the political world.
You can listen to a very interesting podcast of Philip Pettit on The Philosophers' Zone, talking about his involvement with the Spanish government (this is a surprise!). Listen to Philip Pettit here (there's a transcript too if you don't want to listen).
It is not clear to me how it is possible to live up to the latest UN pronouncement on free speech. You can read a Reuters' Report on this here.
If all those who speak, write, express their views have to respect all religious sensitivities, then what can anyone say? Some religious group is likely to be offended by almost any expression of a view. Does the UN want to stop us watching The Life of Brian, Jerry Springer the Opera, etc? Will atheists have to keep quiet about their beliefs for fear of offending religious sensitivities? Watch out Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and co. And how does all this square with the US First Amendment?
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.