‘I take full responsibility for everything that has happened,’ Boris Johnson told the House of Commons at the end of May, in answer to a question from the SNP leader Ian Blackford. He qualified himself in answer to Blackford’s next question: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that the government did.’ It’s a line he’s been peddling for a while. ‘As prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,’ he said at a press conference in January, on the day the official tally of Covid-19 fatalities in the United Kingdom passed 100,000. Since the pandemic began, there has been plenty of talk from the government about responsibility, though usually ours not theirs.
A group of Oxford students are petitioning to have John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy, 'removed from his academic position' on account of his 'discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people'. In his published writings, Finnis has claimed that gay sex is an 'immoral sexual act' akin to bestiality, that being gay should count ‘at least as a negative factor, if not a disqualification’ for adopting children, and that governments should 'discourage' citizens from homosexuality. The petition has its problems.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell, who died yesterday at the age of 91, wrote a piece on the Marx Brothers for the LRB in 1993: Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must.
Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB. The first was on Colin McGinn's Problem of Consciousness in 1991, the last on Hilary Putnam's Philosophy in an Age of Science in 2013. Many of them were on philosophy of mind (and, more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong), though he also wrote on Wagner, Puccini, and Elton John and Tim Rice's reworking of Aida: 'I haven’t been to a musical play in maybe forty years. I know nonetheless (a priori, as philosophers say) that I do not like them.'
I first met Derek Parfit the summer I was 19, when my college boyfriend and I spent a day visiting Oxford. Parfit’s Reasons and Persons was the only thing written by a living person on our first-year philosophy syllabus at Yale. Passing All Souls College, we went to the porter’s lodge and asked, absurdly, if we could see him. The porter said Parfit was teaching a seminar in the Old Library. We stood outside the door, pressing our ears to it, hearing nothing but murmurs, debating whether or not to go in. Eventually the seminar ended and people started to file out. Realising we had no idea what Parfit looked like, we asked every man leaving the room if he was Derek Parfit. They all laughed: they must have been twenty-something graduate students. Finally, out came a man with a mane of white hair and a bright red tie tucked into his trousers, wielding a large Smirnoff vodka bottle. We introduced ourselves.
Derek Parfit died on 1 January. Bernard Williams reviewedReasons and Persons when it came out in 1984: 'Derek Parfit has written a brilliantly clever and imaginative book which treats in a very original way a wide range of ethical questions. It spends virtually no time on meta-ethics (perhaps too little), but it avoids many of the deformations that sometimes afflict first-order ethical philosophy.'
John Locke, commonly seen as a founding father of liberalism, also foretokened the political thought of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In chapter 14 of his Second Treatise, Locke turns to the notion of the prerogative: 'This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative ... therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.' This is Locke's version of Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand, usually translated (no version is perfect) as ‘state of exception’, which obtains when the sovereign deems it necessary to override the law.
‘I envision a world in which a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.’ These are the words of Satoshi Uematsu, the 26-year-old man who killed 19 disabled men and women in a care home in a Tokyo suburb last month, in the biggest mass murder Japan has seen since the Second World War.
England and Wales have a strange system for teaching philosophy. The subject is almost entirely absent from the 11-16 curriculum and, when it is taught, it is through the lens of religion (e.g. arguments for or against the existence of God). After 16, the situation changes, or at least it used to. In the past, at A level, pupils had the opportunity to study ‘religious ethics’ or ‘philosophy of religion’ modules as part of their religious studies curriculum. The philosophy was still God-centric, but wide-ranging enough to allow discussion of anything from the mind-body problem to the ethical justifications for vegetarianism.
'If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive... For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.' Peter Singer's (famous, and much disputed) contention in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality' (1972) may have acquired a new, literal force this week with the widespread dissemination of images of the drowned corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The pictures don't alter Singer's argument one way or the other, but reduce the perceived distance between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The inclusion of Russell Brand on Prospect’s annual list of ‘world thinkers’ has been met with predictable outrage and ridicule. The Guardiansaid that his ‘presence looks designed to be provocative’. Reviewing Brand’s book Revolution for Prospect a few months ago, Robin McGhee attacked ‘Brand’s political stupidity’. At the same time, the Telegraph said that ‘Russell Brand's politics are staggeringly stupid.’ The Spectator called him 'an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance'. In the Observer, Nick Cohen once derided Brand's 'slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions'. Nathasha Lennard in Vice said she didn’t ‘think Brand is totally idiotic. But, to be clear, he is an idiot.’ If there's one thing Brand is not, however, it's stupid: that much should be obvious from watching or reading him, unless you think that having an Essex accent and taking the piss are signs of stupidity.
Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage. Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones.
Justice is a toughie. It so often gets mangled in a slew of circumstance. The man who threw up beside me this week in Edinburgh at a production of A Theory of Justice: the Musical! as it revved towards climax may have not have been passing caustic comment on the show and its hymn to justice. But for me and others nearby it certainly gave the last ten minutes or so of the ‘all singing, all dancing romp through 2500 years of political philosophy’ an extra piquancy.
As the story goes, an Oxford philosopher is asked by his wife to watch the soup while she’s out of the room. She returns to find him staring fixedly at the broth, as it bubbles all over the hob. The joke is on the prof, at once other-worldly and too literal-minded to follow a simple instruction (as Bernard Williams remarked, what would he have done if his wife had asked him to keep an eye on the soup?). But what does it say about the word literally, if a simple task like soup-watching can be cocked up by taking it too literally?
Section 20 of the UK census asks respondents to specify their religion. The tick-box options cover ‘no religion’ as well as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism; it also includes a space for ‘any other religion’. In the last census, in 2001, the space was hijacked by 400,000 self-professed adherents of Jediism and the odd Pastafarian – so-called ‘fictional’ religions. This time, secularists have been urging respondents not to do this, because the results would overstate levels of religiosity in the population at large. Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category.
Philosophical theories of justice generally assign an important role to rectification, the putting right of past wrongs. Thierry Henry's handball in France’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland last Wednesday has offered a mass exercise in rectificatory justice, with many in the Republic calling for the game to be replayed. The Irish know what they’re talking about, having recently had to take the Lisbon Treaty referendum to a replay in order to get the right result. FIFA has spoilsportingly turned down the Irish FA’s pleas. The iniquity is blatant. But why stop with the Henry handball? Why not rectify other instances of footballing injustice? English readers will need, in fact want, no reminding of the anguish of Maradona’s 'hand of God' goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup. That one should obviously be replayed.
The American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004) was an odd case. For decades he held the prestigious John Dewey chair in philosophy at Columbia University. Before that, he was mentor to Hilary Putnam. Yet he rarely wrote anything. Instead, like Socrates, he was known for his viva voce philosophising. He was also known for his 'zingers', the most famous of which was allegedly uttered during an address on the philosophy of language being given by J.L. Austin. 'In some languages,' Austin observed, 'a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative.