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Gigi asked:

Hi. I don’t really know if this makes sense, but according to Deontology and the Universal Moral Imperative, are immigration raids considered moral? Meaning that if anyone was able to conduct an immigration raid at any time, would to world still be a rational place?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

There was once a question on Ask a Philosopher about whether it was ethical according to the Universalizability Principle to post questions on Ask a Philosopher. The problem being that if everybody posted a question, then the service would be swamped and unable to cope.

This is absurd, of course, but it highlights the problem of applying the Universalizability Principle without sufficient thought about what exactly is the thing we are universalizing.

You have a hunch that immigration raids are not always ethical, and that this has something to do with the Universalizability Principle. But what, exactly?

Some would say, the more immigration raids the better. Get rid of all those damned illegal immigrants. Others see a problem — can you say what it is? Two words: probable cause.

In the US, to get a search warrant, or an arrest warrant, there has to be probable cause. You can’t just arrest someone and interrogate them on the off chance that they might confess to doing something illegal. You can’t just search someone’s house on the off chance that they have stolen goods stashed. There has to be something, some meaningful evidence to justify the warrant.

In the UK, the law is different, but a case still has to be made, that there is a reasonable prospect that illegality is involved. There have to be grounds for suspicion.

Well, we know which areas of town where you’re most likely to find illegal immigrants. Let’s just start at the end of the street and raid every house. But that’s not enough. The reason that it is not enough is that if the principle according to which the proposed action was accepted, then you could arrest someone for any reason you like.

Now, we’re getting close to the application of the Universalizability Principle.

Suppose it turns out that the proportion of criminals with the name ‘Smith’ is higher than the proportion of Smiths in the general population. Is that sufficient ground for arresting someone on the grounds that their name is Smith? Why, or why not?

Suppose it turns out that stolen goods are more likely to be found in houses that have a green door, than in houses with doors of any other colour. Is that sufficient ground for searching any house with a green door? Why, or why not?

When you’ve puzzled that out, you will have the answer to your question. If the law (where you happen to live) allows immigration raids without ‘reasonable suspicion’ or ‘probable cause’ then according to the Universalizability Principle the law is wrong. It cannot be ethically justified.


Kecha asked:

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ — does this view of love correspond to the role of philosophers in society?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I wasn’t going to answer your question, Kecha, because the premise seemed so preposterous. The idea that philosophers are in any position to USE the rod is wishful thinking, at best.

As a parent, you have the power to punish your children as you see fit, although the use of the rod is increasingly frowned upon. There are other punishments available so it’s no great loss. But what can a philosopher do if he or she thinks society needs to be called to account? You can write an article or give a speech. Big deal. The only people watching Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube are those already convinced.

Casting my mind back, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher I can think of who succeeded in making himself truly objectionable, addressing Ban the Bomb rallies in Britain in the 60s. Aged 89, he served seven days in Brixton Prison in 1961 for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’.

I almost forgot, there was Abimael Guzman — currently imprisoned — former philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru. No-one could accuse him of sparing the rod. Or rather the bullet.

To cut a long story short, just a couple of days ago, I started noticing a number of posts on the professional philosophy list Philos-L ‘I Am a Dangerous Professor’, referring to an article by George Yancy in the New York Times, November 30, I Am a Dangerous Professor about his appearance in the Professor Watchlist  run by Turning Point USA.

The organization describes itself as a ‘Student movement for free markets and limited government.’ Rabid Nazis, it’s obvious innit?

Someone suggested that if every professor volunteered to join the watch list, its purpose would be vitiated. Another philosophy professor pointed out that you can’t join the watch list unless a newspaper or magazine has reported something bad about you first. Damn!

The scene at the end of the movie Spartacus comes to mind, with the defeated rebel slaves standing up and taking turns to shout, ‘I am Spartacus!’ So the Romans crucified them all, and a jolly good job too.

Of course, professors have enormous power — over their students. If you are a socialist leaning professor and one of your student writes an essay making an  impeccable case for a conservative or libertarian view of some topic, you are less likely to be impressed. Ditto, if you are a conservative leaning professor marking an essay by a student making a case for socialism. Why be surprised if a group of disgruntled conservative students decide they’ve had enough of what they see as unjust discrimination?

If that’s all it is. In his article, George Yancy mentioned Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The very principles of academic freedom are being threatened. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would (say that) wouldn’t he?’

In truth, the fascists of the left are every bit as repellent as the fascists of the right.

What is NOT fascism? I am not talking about being apolitical. No-one can escape politics. It’s a difficult line to tread. As a teacher, you have to foster and actively encourage disagreement. The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have. But leave your own political convictions at home. Make YouTube videos or write articles for the popular press if that makes you feel better.

If you really want to make a difference, run for office. That’s what Plato would have advised.


Francisco asked:

I am interested in philosophy because I want to become a better critical thinker, which hopefully will result in me becoming a better debater. I want to beat others in arguments. What do you suggest I do to achieve this goal?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If you just want to beat others in arguments, being a better critical thinker isn’t too important. Far more useful would be a willingness to keep on arguing until you opponent gives up or backs down — or collapses from exhaustion — coupled the implicit belief that you are never wrong.

As a first step towards this goal, I would recommend that you take a course of assertiveness training. You need to give your ego a bit of a boost. Don’t let the bullies with more knowledge or higher IQs get you down. You can work on your voice, too. Lower the register a bit (it’s more manly) practice your auditorium filling, parliament filling ‘boom’.

Are you married, Francisco? The experience of many, or possibly even most husbands is that they regularly lose arguments with their wives. If this happens to you on a regular basis, you need to learn how to do so gracefully. It would be better in the long run. There’s a lesson to be learned there, on more than one level.

For the philosopher, there is one, and only one reason for wanting to win an argument: you want to establish the truth. The desire to win arguments when the truth is not on your side is the mark of a sophist. If you are wrong in your beliefs, then as a philosopher you should want to be proved wrong — as Socrates says on more than one occasion. When you prove to someone that they are wrong, you are benefitting them. When they prove that you are wrong they are benefitting you.

John Stuart Mill, in his brilliant defence of the liberty of thought and discussion in his book On Liberty (1859) describes truth as the outcome of a ‘contest of opinions’. Think of debate in those terms, rather than a contest between persons. When, as a result of a healthy contest of opinions, the truth wins out, we all — ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — have reason to celebrate.


Kamyar asked:

I have two questions if it’s all right.

First of all, I want to know do humans really need god and in a bigger sense absolute faith in something other than the physical world (let’s call it religious beliefs).

And if we indeed need it, will there ever be a time that we can truly be free of every form of religion and religious beliefs?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Kamyar, first of all I want to say that it is brave of you to give your location as Teheran, Iran. You must know that Iran is one of the countries where ‘apostasy’, i.e. atheism, is punishable by death according to the Iranian state’s enforcement of religious law.

You must also know (unless you are very naive) that right now in Iran there are persons who spend their working days in darkened rooms in front of computer monitors, whose only job is to scour the internet for evidence of any Iranian national who expresses his or her belief in atheism. Iranian bloggers have been arrested, beaten up, subject to kangaroo ‘religious’ courts.

From my own experience, I know that there are many Iranians, both those of faith and those without faith, who are devoted to the pursuit of truth. In Iran, they keep a low profile. Whatever passes as study of ‘philosophy’ in Iranian universities is something that has no place in any genuine philosophical tradition.

Would we be better off getting rid of religion?

Karl Marx, looking forward to a time when religion would no longer be needed described religion as the ‘heart in a heartless world.’ Things are still so bad for so many people that I would not take away the comforts of religion from them, even though it is a false comfort.

The sad fact is that human beings are weak. Those of us who reject religion are tempted make a god out of something else. Even materialism, or science, have an innate tendency to be deified, so I would not even consider ‘faith in a physical world’ as free of the taint of religion.

That said, I believe that the time will come when gods are no longer needed, when human beings accept their finitude and the inevitability of death without recourse to fantastical fairy tales about punishment and reward, ‘holy’ texts whether of science or religion, obsessive-compulsive ritual — and judicial murder.


Francis Rose asked:

I am taking an introductory metaphysics course in which our first unit is entitled “Who is God?”. One point in my textbook that stood out to me was the author’s statement that “indisputably” if God truly exists in both understanding and reality, then God “must be invisible”. Given how much is questioned in the discipline of metaphysics, why must we blindly accept God as being invisible? What formal proof or logic do we have that indicates that God cannot be a visible entity in reality? Perhaps if God exists, God is visible, and part of our struggle as humans is to be open to seeing God. As an aside, I am not religiously persuaded either for or against the existence of God. I am simply curious about how to approach this question from a philosophical standpoint.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

It’s 23:30 here in the UK but I don’t want to let International Blasphemy Day pass without something being said against God.

Of course God is invisible. What you mean by ‘seeing’ God is something like religious revelation which isn’t literal seeing. Your author means literal seeing. If you could literally see God — not just see God in the sense of seeing some physical event that God has caused but see God as God then God would have to be an entity in the physical world.

If God is an entity in the physical world then a whole load of things that are believed about God can’t be true — being infinite, for example, or omniscient (a physical entity’s knowledge of other physical entities depends on cause and effect, which involves forming hypotheses that are increasingly difficult to verify with certainty).

But isn’t Christ God according to Christian doctrine? Only if you mean something weirdly peculiar by ‘is’, which no theologian to date has successfully explained. ‘I believe because I don’t understand’ (I believe because it’s nonsense) just about sums it up.

If I said I believed in invisible aliens who were with me all the time, observing me, giving an undetectable ‘push’ every now and then to help things along, I would be considered a candidate for a lunatic asylum. Yet this is exactly what millions, or billions, believe about the entity they call ‘God’. So strong is this belief that in some countries you can be put to death for expressing opposition to it.

‘Lots of things we justifiably believe in are invisible,’ a believer may say. The number five. Justice. Gravity or magnetism (you can only see their effects). Well if you’re saying that God is a concept or an abstract object then forget about any notion of God having any physical effect on the world (least of all being able to ‘create’ it). If you are saying that God is like a physical force, that would be fine if you have a testable theory to back it up — including proof of God’s alleged properties. Oh, but I forgot, bang goes infinitude, etc.

The God hypothesis is a crackpot theory which no reasonable human being ought to believe in. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what millions and billions continue to do. Unreason still rules — and will continue to rule until we blasphemers do something effective about it.


Tom asked:

In claiming that Socrates was not concerned with the metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe (which led to many of these types of philosophers being called heretics), mainly because he simply did not know the answers to those questions and wasn’t good at discovering them, he did not want to be confused with… what?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Well, I hate to say it, but this is another pretty dumb instructor’s essay question. You really don’t need to read my answer, just read Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. (Try hard to suppress your tears when you reach the end. Plato really knew how to lard it on.)

Socrates didn’t want to be confused with the ‘physikoi’, the thinkers such as Anaxagoras who speculated about the nature of the physical universe. These were not ‘metaphysical’ questions (where did your instructor get that idea?).

If you are looking for ‘metaphysical’ inquiry, then the Presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus would the most relevant — but their theories were the precursors to Plato’s own theory of Forms, which he developed from Socrates’ teaching about the soul and the virtues.

Socrates’ concern is with ‘Man’. (Women, as distinct from men, weren’t really a topic.) However, his concern with human beings is not ‘humanistic’ in the modern sense. The soul of man is ‘akin to the Forms’ he says in the Phaedo, that is how philosophers are able to obtain knowledge of the Forms through the inquiry which Plato called ‘dialectic’ (again, modelled on the example of Socrates’ method of philosophical interrogation — the  ‘elenchus’).

This is metaphysics, in its most scary, full-blooded form!

In Aristophanes’ Comedy Clouds, the figure of Socrates is lampooned as a typical example of the ‘physical philosopher’, which shows how little the Athenians understood the revolution that was taking place. After the death of Socrates, Plato set out to set the record straight. He succeeded brilliantly, largely because of his immense literary gifts. (According to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book Plato’s Progress 1966, Plato’s dialogues were performed to live audiences.)

In the process, the great Greek Sophists, such as Gorgias and Protagoras — keen admirers of the physikoi — were abused and stigmatized, and forever banned from the Academy.

I’m sorry to say, the wellsprings of philosophy in the Western tradition are thoroughly fascist. (Karl Popper said it first, in The Open Society and its Enemies 1945.) Today, we have academic philosophy — fascism with a liberal face.


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'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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