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Frank asked:

What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Graham Hackett, writing before the EU Referendum vote on 23rd June, has given an exemplary answer to Frank’s question, focusing on the supposed ‘moral duty’ to vote, and whether — and the extent to which — this duty also requires ‘careful deliberation’ and ‘due diligence’.

Like Graham, I am not arguing for a view about either side in the Referendum debate. In yesterday’s Issue 202 of Philosophy Pathways, in a news item on a new book European Identity and Citizenship by Sanja Ivic, a member of the Board of the International Society for Philosophers, it states, ‘The ISFP has no political affiliations and no view — official or otherwise — on [the] rights or wrongs of European Union membership.’

— We don’t want to alienate any of our readers, do we?!

In order to gain a better context for the debate (still on-going, despite the result) the classic book to read is Hobbes Leviathan (1651, 1668) or to give the full title, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. I’m not going to try to summarize this great book, but a central theme is the definition of ‘sovereign power’ and the case for there being just one such sovereign (per state). The short argument is, if you have two or more rulers, then you have not overcome the ‘original position’ where issues are decided not by the rule of law but by force. How issues or disagreements are resolved between states is a different matter.

Although the book was originally intended to defend the case for an absolute Monarch, contemporary political philosophers have seen the concept of sovereignty as applicable with tweaks to a liberal democracy. In the UK, Parliament is the sovereign power. ‘Devolution’ of power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is ultimately subject to decisions made at Westminster. The devolved assemblies/ parliaments have the power to debate proposals and act on what they decide, but in principle such decisions can always be overruled by central government.

Parliament can, theoretically, pass a motion today stating that the United Kingdom hereby repeals all legislation deriving from the EU. There are a number of practical reasons why this is not going to happen, although some have argued that it is ultimately the best game plan. Just brazen it out — and then deal with the consequences.

Let’s now look at the EU. In an interview on the BBC ‘Outside Source’ News program yesterday, a member of Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, stated his view that the ‘majority’ of Germans would like to see ever-closer union and the formation of a EU state (some have used the term ‘superstate’). It would not be unfair to assert that such aims are shared by many in the EU governing hierarchy. Could the EU ever become the sovereign power over the 27 (or whatever number it is when the UK leaves) member countries?

To be the sovereign, as Hobbes understood, you need the power to exercise that sovereignty. If a country rebels against the ‘Union’ (as the South did in the American Civil War) then ultimately only force can decide the outcome. The Confederacy could have thought about their situation and decided that, all things considered, it might be best to remain with the Union and avoid bloodshed. Whether the threat is exercised through military or economic means, the result is identical. Once you have made the decision to stay, the same threat hovers over any future ambition to leave.

Arguably, this is the situation that the UK faces today. Even though the EU state does not yet exist in its fully-fledged form, the same economic threat applies now and in all future scenarios. ‘Leave us, and you face financial ruin.’ If you think the answer is to leave and to hell with the consequences, are you not in the same position as the Confederates (if only they had had access to a crystal ball)?

For those who are not immediately affected by the outcome, one way or another, this is a classic lesson in political philosophy. It is the essence of what a state is, or what has the ambition to be a state, that it has the potential to exercise the necessary power to rule. Those who wish for whatever reasons to rebel against the ‘Leviathan’ have to be prepared to respond with equal or greater force. The game is on.

Bella asked:

What is meant by a ‘disjunctivist’ account of perception? What is the case for disjunctivism?

Answer by Danny Krämer

The interesting point of the philosophy of perception is: “How do we gain knowledge by perception?” Therefore there are three different kinds of perceptual experiences, that are often listed: veridical experience, illusions and hallucinations. The case for a veridical experience is pretty straight forward. If you look at a red tomato and you see indeed a red tomato, then you have a veridical experience of the tomato. An illusion is, for example, when you look at a red tomato but you see it as green, for whatever reason.  And a hallucination is when you see a red tomato but there is just no red tomato to see. Classical philosophy of perception maintains that all three cases have something in common (for example a sense-datum, a representation). Disjunctivists deny this point. A veridical experience and a hallucination of a red tomato have nothing in common. There is nothing like a red tomato representation in my mind, that is the same when I see a red tomato and when I hallucinate a red tomato.

There are many different arguments for the disjunctivist view of perception. The most popular origins from John McDowell and is an epistemological one. First, we recognize that it could be possible that we think we have a veridical experience tomato but in fact we only hallucinate one. Our claim that there is a tomato is therefore not really justified. But the factor that turns the veridical case into a hallucination is not epistemically accessible to us. We believe that there is a red tomato, because we saw it but in fact there is none. That means our epistemic reasons for perceptual judgements are not better in the veridical case as in the hallucinatory case. And this yields scepticism. McDowell takes a disjunctivist stance to block these sceptical arguments. If there is no common factor in the veridical case and the hallucinatory case, then we have different epistemic factors that play into our perceptual judgements. In the veridical case it is the thing itself and our perception of it. In the hallucinatory case it is something different in kind that creates the wrong judgement.


JJ asked:

I study in engineering college and currently in a collegiate club. Our club is the only place (what I feel) to learn something new exciting and technical. While doing work everyday my club mates use cuss words as frustation is normal for us. I have controlled this since I have joined the club and I know I can control it further as I don’t really like to use such abusive words against anyone. But Now I have reached the limit and cant bear further for God’s sake as I really get frustated when I hear such words. Please tell me a way to deal with this situation other than the solution of leaving the club (if any).

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Cuss words (I’ll use your term) are best reserved for when you hit your thumb with a hammer or when your best friend betrays you. (Word for word, that’s what my old public schoolmaster Mr Carrick used to say.)

A lightning bolt won’t come down from the sky to incinerate you if you say, ‘Damn!’ or even use the ‘F’ or ‘C’ words occasionally.

On the other hand, you could argue that bad language is a form of violence, most frequently sexual violence. Violence violates. You feel violated, even when the ‘cuss’ words are not directed towards you, and I understand that. But how to deal with it?

A colleague once gave me some good advice that applies to any situation you find difficult to bear. ‘Put up with it, change it, or leave.’ You don’t want to leave. So what are the chances of changing your clubmates’ ingrained habits? I wish you luck if you want to go down that road. Challenge them each time. Make yourself really annoying. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they will kick you out and at least you won’t have to say that you crawled away with your tail between your legs.

So that leaves just one option. Put up with it. If you are looking for philosophic inspiration read the Stoics. Accept the world as it is — the things you don’t have the power to change — but don’t let that force you to deviate from your own path of virtue. You feel the mental pain every time, but it is your choice whether to mind it.

Frank asked;

What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Frank; where to start? I could write a large essay on political philosophy, and compare the value of decisions which are taken by majority vote with those which are taken by knowledgeable experts. Also, I could hold forth on whether a simple once-and for all majority referendum is better than a lengthier more measured procedure. For example, in the USA, changing an important matter like an article of the constitution requires extended discussion, and consent by two thirds of state legislatures. Deciding on whether to leave the EU or stay would merely require a simple majority of the UK electorate.

I would like to look at the question of the referendum from an ethical viewpoint. Have we an obligation to vote? We all know that the results of votes can lead to important results; governments can fall, wars can be started and lives lost. Remember that before he assumed power and banned all elections, Hitler and his Nazi party were elected by the German people. So it does seem that we have some kind of obligation to make our voice heard in the referendum. However, it is difficult to see where this obligation might come from, unless we quote Gilbert Harman’s view about the contractual nature of moral obligation and argue that voting is one of the obligations we implicitly contract to perform if we belong to a democratic state. Note that this would make only the act of voting a moral obligation, not the direction of our vote.

Also, the decisions we might take in an election or referendum might vary from being disastrously wrong to being brilliantly beneficial. Just look at the majority voting decision to call the NERC polar vessel “Boaty McBoatface”. The director of NERC felt that this compromised the reputation and integrity of his organisation so much, that he felt he had no option but to ignore the democratic choice in favour of the name “RRS David Attenborough” – which had only been the fifth most popular choice in the electors list. What does this tell us about democracy, and its ability to deliver correct decisions?

So far, this might suggest that a decision to actually cast a vote is actually a correct moral decision, a Kantian duty perhaps. However, it leaves us in the difficult position of having to say that voting in the referendum is (arguably) a moral duty, but the collective nature of these votes might be a disaster. Of course, this is a problem for all elections, and that the importance of the decision to be taken in an EU referendum just exacerbates it

So we have not only a duty to vote in the referendum but a duty to carefully deliberate our decision. But good intentions are not enough. A benevolent 1933 German voting for Hitler might act from good intentions, thinking that Hitler would not only restore the integrity of Germany, but also contribute to world peace. So voting for whether we leave or remain in the EU is different from what program I choose to watch on the TV. Or what meal I order in a restaurant. These decisions only affect me, and are nobody elses business. However, your choice to leave or remain in the EU is very much my business, not just yours.  Peoples voting decisions can cause hurt to other innocent people, so that it just seems plain wrong to say, as many people do, “go out and vote; It doesn’t matter if you know little about politics. The important thing is to vote.”

The result of the above is that I would hold that voting in a democracy is a public moral duty. However, because of the importance of the results of such decisions as that of remain or leave the EU, I would qualify this by saying that it is a public moral duty to vote well. What would voting well mean? I would argue that it places a heavy obligation on voters to pursue a policy of “due diligence” to ensure that they are convinced that they are morally and epistemically justified in the decision they have taken. As an elector, can you put your hand on your heart and claim that you have sufficient warrant for your belief? Can you truly say that you have done enough work to claim that the decision you are about to vote for will be for the public good?

You can see that this is a tall order, and makes democracy one of the more difficult political systems to pull off. Whenever I contemplate decisions such as the one in the EU referendum, It becomes pertinent to ask whether democracy can cope with it, and whether a simple blunt mechanism like a majority referendum can cope. There is no justification for believing that a majority decision will be the better because of the size of the majority in favour.

But what are the alternatives?

Ethel asked:

If I ignore the rule ‘ignore all the rules,’ am I obeying a rule?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This seems an unanswerable question – and that is in fact a clue to the answer.

The rule says, ‘Ignore all the rules.’ If you are to ignore ALL rules then you must ignore this rule. But if you ignore this rule, you are doing what the rule says – you are obeying, or attempting to obey it. Which you are not permitted to do!

The problem is a variant of the Barber paradox. If I told you that in the town where I live there is a barber who shaves all and only those men who do not shave themselves, you would know that I am lying. If he shaves himself, then it is false that he shaves a man ‘who does not shave himself’. If he does not shave himself, then it is false that he shaves ‘all’ the men who do not shave themselves. The paradox is apparent not real, because the solution is readily available.

The solution is that the statement I made about the barber is necessarily false. It cannot be true, any more than the statement ‘there exists a square circle’ can be true.

Just as there are statements whose logical structure entails that they cannot be true, so there are commands whose logical structure entails that they cannot be obeyed. One such command would be, ‘Find me a square circle.’ Another is the command, ‘Ignore all the rules.’

Thank you for this question, Ethel!

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


June 2016
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