Tag Archives: philosophy

Death and All of His Friends

The Government recently set up a website on which citizens can register petitions to the government; Parliament will debate any which cross a threshold of 100,000 signatures.

As of the time of writing, the issues with the most signatures are to bring back the death penalty, keep F1 free-to-air, and to retain the ban on the death penalty. Happily, the petition to retain the ban on the death penalty is absolutely spanking the petition to bring it back. Partly I’m happy about this because — please excuse the ad hominem — I find its originator, Paul Staines (who blogs under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes), to be a fairly unpleasant character whenever I come across his views.

Mostly though, I’m happy about this because I’m fundamentally opposed to the death penalty.

There are multiple dimensions to which you can analyse this debate: the purely practical issues of if it will be cheaper, or safer, for society in the long run to execute people rather than locking them up; and the moral dimension, is it fundamentally right to execute people?

I’m going to declare my bias: I think it’s morally wrong. It is an utterly appalling and regrettable thing for one human being to kill another, wherever and whenever it happens. There are, unfortunately, times when killing is necessary. Times when life must be taken in self-defence, or when it’s kill-or-be-killed, even occasionally in war: few would disagree that Hitler needed stopping.

But it’s important that when you fight monsters, you take care not to become a monster yourself. Hitler had to be stopped because he would have expanded Eastwards until either the Russians stopped him, or he’d enslaved or exterminated every single one of them. A little evil was committed to prevent a greater evil. There was no other choice.

Mostly, though, we do have a choice. When we catch a murderer, we can be better than they are. We don’t have to kill; we have a choice. We can lock them away so they’ll never do harm again. If we’re lucky, they’ll genuinely repent, and become useful members of society again. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and (even though I’m not religious, I like this bit) Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Be bigger, be better, be greater.

That’s the problem with execution; it’s not justice. It’s revenge. And revenge is, for lack of a better word, easy. It’s the easy thing to do, when you’ve been wronged, to gang up with your friends, with society at large, and exert your power upon the wrong-doer, and make them suffer. It’s a damned hard thing to do — and this is what I think Jesus was trying to get at — to resist the urge to do so.

I think one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever heard of is Rais Bhuiyan. In 2001, just after the attacks on 9/11, Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree, killing anybody he believed to be Muslim. Bhuiyan was shot in the face with a shotgun, but survived, although he lost the sight in one eye, and still has shotgun pellets embedded in his skull. Two others were killed. Stroman has since been put to death, despite Bhuiyan campaigning for him to be spared. I find Rais Bhuiyan’s example awe-inspiring.

Personally, I think that spending the rest of your life in prison, potentially decades, is a far more awful thing than to merely die. There an awful lot of things in life which are worse than mere death.

Then there’s the purely mechanical issues. Is is cheaper to just execute someone (nope), does it deter murder (probably not), will innocent people be executed by mistake (quite likely), but honestly those don’t bother me so much; they’re not my primary reason.

I think the very notion that the state be allowed to kill fundamentally brutalises our culture; it is a difference not in kind but merely of magnitude between hanging a murder in this country, and stoning to death an adulterer in Iran.

That all said, the theory and philosophy of punishment is an incredibly difficult topic; the death penalty really cuts to the heart of thinking about what punishment is for, and how best to achieve that end. It’s a topic I hope to return to.

For Once, Not Politics or Philosophical Essayism

Whenever I’m not feeling OK, I have a tendency to hit the philosophy. There’s something about contemplating the essential questions of existence that makes your everyday shit seem to be much less of a concern, and more like weird background noise. I’ve finished reading Nausea, my copy of Catcher in the Rye is back on the shelf, and hopefully things will go back to something approximating normal.

I hope I’ve learned something. It was probably something I’d hoped I’d learned before, and no doubt through my own infinite stupidity will need to learn again at some point in the future, but I hope that I’ve learned it for real this time.

Sometimes things end. It’s sad, and sometimes you just can’t understand why, or make sense of what happened, but you can’t howl into the wind and try to change the past with the power of your fury; you’ll just consume yourself in hatred and bitterness and nihilism. Some things just aren’t worth the time, effort or pain trying to fight.

Time to learn to let things end.

In other news, there’s a Fairtrade Cheese & Wine party on Friday night, which I will certainly be going to, and there two events on Thursday I would like to attend but they’re mutually exclusive and I may not have time anyway: Fairtrade tea party, and ICU Election Hustings.

Act accordingly.

Andy out.

Reading: Part 2 – Why I am not a Christian

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m an atheist. As a group, we’re on the ascendency; we’re putting ads onto buses, we got a shout-out from Obama in his inauguration speech, and Britain is becoming every more secularised.

We’re a challenge to the old order; the notion that religion makes for a moral being, that adherence to a creed and heirarchy without evidence, in spite of evidence, is the only path to virtue.

This, of course, means that atheists have a lot of enemies, particularly in the States. More people would vote for a homosexual, Muslim, Mormon, or female candidate for the Presidency than would vote for an atheist. If you don’t regularly go to a church, or mosque, or synagogue, you can forget about being President. I’d like to believe less people in Britain would care about the religion of the Prime Minister (although “anyone but Brown” seems to be the more salient concern).

You also inevitably get those people who think they’ve got you in a corner when they suggest that atheism is intellectually dishonest, and that it’s a faith as bad as the ones we protest against.

Which brings us neatly around to Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of an idea known as “Russell’s teapot”. It can be summarised (courtesy of the fine fellows who edit Wikipedia) as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

It’s a wonderful piece of intellectual ammunition, and it’s one of the reasons I like to read books by people like Lord Russell and Prof. Dawkins.

The book I have lately read is a collection of short essays on various subjects, leading with the titular Why I am not a Christian but with other topics too, such as sexual ethics and academic freedom, as well as an appendix detailing the witch-hunt which prevented Lord Russell from taking up an academic position at a New York college.

It was an immensely enjoyable read, and refreshing in the wonderful way that all works of great intellectual achievement are. The feeling of another’s fantastic thoughts running through your own brain are incredible, and it’s a damned good reason why I should really read more philosophy.

I felt like his musings on why he wasn’t a Christian were probably amongst the material that inspired Dawkins, and so the arguments there are familiar, if brought to a higher polish by Dawkins in his book The God Delusion.

I found the sections on sexual ethics to be particularly interesting because for the time he was writing they would have been extremely controversial, and they remain so today. He raises the points that sexual taboos are unhealthy, and that the sexual instinct should not be as repressed as it is in our society. It was actually a shock to me that in contemplating his ideas I discovered some of my own unreasonable prejudices and indoctrinations. A profound re-orientation of sexual ethics around the principles of reason would probably be very healthy.

In light of this, I’m probably in the near future going to buy something like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I do find the question of feminism really rather interesting. She’s also an existentialist, which I like a lot.

All in all this is a very interesting collection of essays that’s well worth reading, especially if you’re not sure what it is you believe. I just have to say I would rather be on the side of people like Russell than many religious people.

If you haven’t already, go back to Part 1 – Illium.

Coming soon, Part 3 – Slaughterhouse 5.

Philosophy is fun

So lately I’ve been ploughing my way through an introduction to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. It’s an introduction to the philosophy and beliefs that informed the Manifesto, with Marx’s adoption and then rejection of earlier ideas by philosophers like Hegel. Eventually when I’m finished with that I’ll get to read the Manifesto itself, which may or may not be the satisfying pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We’ll see.

What I’ve been enjoying about it is that reading philosophy is kind of like food for the mind – well, sort of. It’s not a great simile, because philosophy is satisfying and sustaining even if you don’t really like (or fully understand!) the views you’re reading. For instance, for my taste a lot of philosophy is far too concerned with religion for my tastes; religion is very orthogonal to my particular world outlook, I’m far more interested in political economy, for instance, and these two issues just weren’t orthogonal for writers of that era.

Even so though, it’s mentally nourished me in that it’s made me realise that we each bring our particular baggage with us – we interpret the world around us entirely in terms of what we know. Marx and his contemporaries lived in an era (and location) of (Protestant) Christian domination, and their world-view is unavoidably slanted by their immersion in that environment. Personally, my world view is contaminated by my training, and my knowledge – I’m a physical scientist right down to the bones of me.

So I find some of the ideas of “spirit” and “essence” and “being” utterly alienating in the work – their attempts to understand Man will always seem to me to be fundamentally flawed. I understand Man as being nothing more than a complicated assemblage of physical, chemical and biological components, working in accordance with natural laws: Conservation of Energy, Conservation of Mass, Causality, Evolution, etc. and that we are best understood as being essentially a complex and chaotic system that can be best understood through scientific and statistical methods. There’s no need for some awkward dualist notion of a separate “Mind” or “Soul” that’s in some way external from the body, what appears to be a mind is just the internal perception of a chaotic electrochemical process. What frees us from rigid determinism is not some inherent freedom of a “Soul” from natural law, but just plain old quantum uncertainty – you can’t perfectly predict the future because you can’t know the initial conditions.

That’s my bias, and it’s what gives me dissatisfaction with Marx.

For all his claims to being “scientific” there’s no robust theory, no testable predictions, just blind philosophical assertions. Certainly no mathematics!

Anyways, like I said, I haven’t actually gotten into the meat of the Manifesto yet; maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it’s an refreshing just to get mentally engaged with such things.