Monday, August 10, 2020

The cooperation paradox

While some scientists, like Frans de Waal, try to show that man is not so unique in the animal world as we think, others, like Michael Tomasello, just try to show that we are distinct. An approach like the one by De Waal teaches us to be modest and that we are not the kind of superior beings we always supposed to be. From Tomasello’s approach we could get the idea that we are the masters of the animal world and that we can do with other animals what we like. However, that’s absolutely not what Tomasello wants to suggest. His motive is to explain what makes us different from other animals – and especially from our nearest relatives the great apes – without connecting this with any other pretention than an improved understanding of ourselves.
What makes man unique in the living world is, so Tomasello, that unlike any other creature on earth man has the capacity of shared intention, joint commitment, collective intention, or how you want to call it. Tomasello didn’t invent these concepts himself but borrowed them from others like Michael E. Bratman and Margaret Gilbert. Since I have written about shared intention etc. before in my blogs, I’ll not say more about it here.
But there is more that makes “us” different. Here are some features of man and human society that you don’t find elsewhere in the animal world, although most of these features are based on the capacity of shared intention, indeed. They are a bit arbitrary chosen, in the sense that other points could be added, although those mentioned belong to the core of what makes man different from other animals. 

- Altruism. In my blog last week we have seen that altruism is fundamental in man. Here is yet another example: You are standing somewhere and looking around. Then, a passer-by asks you: “Sir, can I help you?”
- Social institutions, namely, as Tomasello defines them, “sets of behavioral practices governed by various kinds of mutually recognized norms and rules.” (p. xi) A case in point is marriage. In all cultures you find the practice of marriage as a kind of stable relationship between man and woman plus sanctions if the norms and rules that define marriage are broken.
- Organisations: planned coordinated human interactions in order to attain one or more goals. Here I want to mention especially schools or other teaching for others than your kin in general. Tomasello: “Teaching is a form of altruism … in which individuals donate information to others for their use. … [T]here are no systematic, replicated reports of active instruction in nonhuman primates” (not to speak in other animals – HbdW). (p. xiv)
- Cumulative culture. It happens that nonhuman animals have learned habits that occur only in some groups of these same animals and not in others, so that we can call them “culture”. However, only man also makes improvements of what once has been learned and practiced. The result is that human culture evolves. Many once simple human instruments and practices develop and become more complicated in the course of time. No such a thing is known in the animal world. (pp. x-xi)
- Imitation. Man tends “to imitate others in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform…” (pp. xiv-xv) It can even happen that people who break norms of conformity are sanctioned. Fashion is an example. 

Note that these points are not mutually exclusive but overlap for a part (schooling and altruism, for instance). Anyway, such special kinds of cooperation, namely cooperation based on shared intention, have brought us a lot. I think that most people will agree. Nevertheless, this cooperation is not only positive. For the foregoing gives us the impression that we are cooperative angels, always trying to make the best for us all. However, as also Tomasello makes clear, we aren’t. To quote him again” [H]umans …also [do] all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside ‘the group.’ Indeed, recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to motivate people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that ‘they’ threaten ‘us’. The remarkable human capacity for cooperation therefore seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group. Such group-mindedness in cooperation is, perhaps ironically, a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today.” (pp. 99-100) So, the cooperation that made human beings so successful seems to be founded on a non-cooperative attitude and practice towards all who do not belong to their own group. Therefore, cooperation rests on a paradox. In order to overcome this paradox and in order to make the world a more peaceful and yet better place to live in, a better place for all and not only for some men, we must promote that our group comes to include the whole world, humanity in its entirety. Or, as Tomasello says it: “The solution … is to find new ways to define the group.” (p. 100) 


Michael Tomasello, Why we cooperate. Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2009.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Rousseau or Hobbes?

A man is a wolf to another man, so Hobbes. Man is selfish and egoistic by nature, he thinks, and in order to protect men against other men they must be forced to cooperate. That’s why there are states. States force men to work together and to help each other, if necessary, so that in the end everybody is better off. Others, however, think that men are good by nature and that men are by far that selfish as Hobbes thinks. According to Rousseau, for example, men are helpful and cooperative and it’s just the state that corrupts them. Which view is correct? In his first Tanner Lecture on Human Values in 2008 Michael Tomasello tried to answer this question.
Three main types of human altruism can be distinguished, so Tomasello: You can share goods like food with others. You can help others like fetching an out-of-reach object for someone. Or you can altruistically give information to another person. What can we say about the presence of these types in man? All men are more or less sharing, helping and informative but are we naturally so or are these characteristics forced upon us and do we share, help and inform others only for egoistic reasons? For answering these questions Tomasello presents several investigations done with young children and chimpanzees.
He first discusses helping. In one study (Tomasello pp. 6ff), of the 24 eighteen-month-old infants tested 22 helped at least once, when a person they didn’t know dropped something accidentally, but they did nothing, when the person dropped something on purpose. Tomasello gives several reasons why studies like this one makes it likely that men help altruistically by nature. First, they show helpful behaviour already at a very young age before most parents expect their children to behave pro-socially. Second, parental rewards and encouragement don’t seem to increase infant’s helpful behaviour. Third, chimpanzees do such things as well. Fourth, probably such behaviour is shown in different cultures. Fifth, an adult makes a drawing and another deliberately tears it up. Or, alternatively, an adult puts aside an empty sheet of paper and another adult tears it up. In the first situation infants look concerned and want to help more often than in the second situation. For such reasons, Tomasello believes that “children’s early helping is not a behavior created by culture and/or parental socialization practices. Rather, it is an outward expression of children’s natural inclination to sympathize with others in strife.” (p. 13)
Although altruistically helping is something both human infants and chimpanzees do in some situations, altruistically informing others seems typically human. Take this study, for example: An adult is stapling papers and an infant is watching it. The adult leaves the room for a moment and another adult comes in and moves stapler and papers to some shelves. The first adult comes back and wonders where stapler and papers are. Then most infants will spontaneously point where they have been put. In another study, a chimpanzee is looking for food. You see where it is and point to the location. However, the chimp doesn’t understand, for why should you tell him where to find the food? Any chimpanzee tries to keep it for himself! Apes don’t point or it should be advantageous for themselves. Generally they don’t understand what (altruistically) pointing means, while infants see it as informative behaviour. Such studies show, so Tomasello, that “the comparison between children and apes is different in the case of informing. When it comes to informing, as opposed to instrumental helping, humans do something cooperatively that apes seemingly do not at all. This suggests that altruism is not a general trait, but rather that altruistic motives may arise in some domains of activity but not in others.” (pp. 20-21.
And sharing? “Virtually all experts agree that apes are not very altruistic in the sharing of resources such as food.” (p. 21) How different children are. Since Tomasello presents cases of somewhat older children, where learned culture may have had already an influence, I prefer to give an experience of my own with the same content. Once on holiday by bike in Norway, my wife and I stopped somewhere. A man came from a nearby house and began to talk to us in Norwegian and we didn’t understand a word of it. We were a bit confused and didn’t know what to do. Then the man left for a moment and returned with a big bag with shrimps and gave it to us. Why? Till today I have no idea, but I think that it is a case of altruistically sharing in due form. But back to Tomasello. Do people always share? Probably not, he says, when your plane crashes in the Andes and you have one granola bar in your pocket. So, his conclusion is: “In the case of sharing resources such as food … human children seem to be more generous than chimpanzees. But … this is only a matter of degree. Starving humans are not so generous with food, either. It is just that chimpanzees act as if they were always starving.” (p. 28).
Now I must cut short my analysis, but anyway, there is little proof that altruism in helping, informing or sharing is the result of acculturation, parental intervention, or any other form of socialization. (p. 28) This doesn’t mean that man is only altruistic by nature, and that helpfulness etc. are not also promoted by culture in some way. Children learn by themselves, too. They adapt to what society requires of them, although this adaption, too, is innate to a large extent. Children follow the rules because they feel to do so and they often feel ashamed and guilty by themselves if they don’t follow the rules. The upshot is then: If someone is right, it is not Hobbes but Rousseau. But we start as a Rousseau and then we become infected by Hobbes.

Michael Tomasello, Why we cooperate. Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2009.

Monday, July 27, 2020

What is a group?

Everybody has the same intention, but do they form a group?
Farmer's demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands, 2019

One of the major problems in the philosophy of action is how it is possible that a group acts while actually the acts are performed by the members of the group. That was the theme of my blog last week. This problem can be solved, for instance, by ascribing intentions to groups and treat them as entities that perform actions. This is Tollefsen’s solution. However, what is the entity that we can ascribe intentions to? In other words, what is, what I want to call, an intentional group?
Michael E. Bratman, and actually also Margaret Gilbert, state that entities we can ascribe to collective intentions must be small. However, when is a collectivity is small enough to consider it as an intentional group? Let’s take Bratman. He says: “... my focus will be primarily on the shared intentional activities of small, adult groups in the absence of asymmetric authority relations within those groups, and in which the individuals who are participants remain constant over time. Further, I will bracket complexities introduced by the inclusion of the group within a specific legal institution such as marriage, or incorporation. My interest will be primarily with duets and quartets rather than symphony orchestras with conductors, with small teams of builders rather than large and hierarchical construction companies” (2014, p. 7)
In his analyses, Bratman considers only two-person groups. But why should it be so that what is true for two-person groups is also true for bigger groups like quartets if not for groups bigger than quartets? Bratman doesn’t justify his choice. Actually any upper-limit in group size will be arbitrary. We can change a quartet into a quintet and the philosophical analysis will not basically change. And the same so if we take a sextet, then an octet, then a nonet. The change is gradual and to limit group size in view of the possibility to ascribe a collective intention is difficult to justify.
A second problem is whether a group is still the same group, when a member is replaced, especially if we consider small groups like duos or foursomes. In many groups it’s normal that members are substituted. Think of sports teams, the board of an organisation, debating clubs, etc. Members come and go and often after some time the group has got a completely different composition. Four members of a symphony orchestra have formed a string quartet. Then one of them is ill and is temporarily replaced by another musician. Must we say then that we have a different string quartet, although name and repertoire of the ensemble haven’t changed?
A third question is whether a group needs to be an independent entity not linked to an umbrella organisation. Bratman, and also Gilbert – implicitly –, think so. However, it’s doubtful whether this assumption is realistic. Bratman and Gilbert analyse examples like two people who want to paint a house together or who have agreed to make a walk together. But often groups are not of that kind in the sense that they are merely a few people who voluntarily perform activities together without any responsibility towards a kind of umbrella organization. Take the string quartet just mentioned. Even if the strings can decide themselves where to play and if they always want to play with the same four musicians, probably they must take care of what their boss, the symphony orchestra, requires of them. Or four athletes decide to form a relay team, but they’ll have to reckon with the rules of their club and the athletic union. Or four virologists decide to form a corona vaccine development team. Nevertheless, they can only do so if they belong to a medical institute, since they lack the means to work independently. If we would require that a group is really independent, then many cooperating people with a common intention to perform a certain task would be denied the status of being a group, although they apparently are.
But, fourth, even the differences between individual actions and groups actions are gradual. Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht. I buy a ticket and take the train. This apparently simple individual action supposes much implicit cooperation with other people! Already buying a ticket requires many intentions of other persons in order to make it possible. I buy, for example, the ticket at the ticket machine. Someone (or several people) must have thought out this machine, some must have constructed it, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. For being able to buy a simple railway ticket – not to speak of the ride itself – a whole structure of intentions (and actions) is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. Nobody can make his own train ticket, or it would be seen as a falsification. That such buying a ticket is “groupish” becomes clear if we compare it with my spading my garden. I take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself.
These are a few questions that I want to raise when we consider intentional groups. The upshot is that although groups exist and although we can ascribe intentions to groups, it’s impossible to define what a group is. Agents, groups and big complicated organizations if not societies or humanity as a whole are actually ranges on a continuum with the former and the latter as extremes. In this sense groups do not exist.

- Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. A Planning Theory of Acting Together. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Gilbert, Margaret, On Social Facts. London, etc.: Routledge, 1989.
- Weg, Henk bij de, “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”,

Monday, July 20, 2020

How groups act

Group mind
One of the major problems in the philosophy of action is how it is possible that a group acts while actually the acts are performed by the individuals that belong to the group. That is, the bodily movements that are interpreted as actions are done by these individuals, and the intentions that make that the body movements are interpreted as actions belong to the acting individuals. How could it be otherwise? Intentions are mental phenomena that are developed in the mind. However, a group hasn’t a mind and so it cannot have intentions. And without an intention there is no action. Ergo group actions do not exist, and one step further is to say that there are no groups.
This reasoning seems sound, but nevertheless I think that, with the exception of some other-worldly philosophers, nobody will defend this Thatcherian view. (see for my rejection of this view). Any person who has his/her head screwed on the right way, will see that everyone behaves as if groups exist. And if such an other-worldly philosopher walks through the corridors of a university s/he will meet colleagues from other faculties who study groups or at least do as if they are real in their theories and investigations. Sociologists, historians, lawyers, etc., they all study the activities of groups. Is it then that they see ghosts, or is it the other-worldly philosopher who suffers from delusions? For, to give some examples, how it is possible then that a football team wins a match if there are no groups? For even if it is the centre forward who kicked the ball in the goal of the opponent, if he didn’t have ten other – or at least six other – team mates, there wouldn’t have been a regular match. Or, other cases, I cannot sing a duet alone, and it is almost daily practice that companies are sentenced in court and that it is the company that has to pay the fine and not the individual members of the management.
So groups are real phenomena. Even so, the problem remains then how to explain group actions if it is the individual members of the group who act. Many philosophers, sociologists and other scholars and scientists have tried to answer this question. For instance, I am charmed by the structuration theory developed by the sociologist Anthony Giddens that tries to tackle this problem. However, here I want to discuss the approach proposed by Deborah Tollefsen in her Groups as Agents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), which I find also interesting.
But first this. In her Persons and Bodies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) Lynne Rudder Baker defends the so-called “constitution view”. If we take Michelangelo’s famous statue David, actually we have only a pierce of marble. Nonetheless we call it a statue that represents David. It is not only that the marble represents a person, we say also that it has a head, arms etc, even though we have only a piece of marble in front of us. Moreover, it’s not the marble that has a head, arms, etc, but it is David (the statue) who has. Baker explains this by saying that the marble worked by Michelangelo constitutes David.
This is also more or less implicit-explicit in Tollefsen’s approach. According to Tollefsen – and I agree – we don’t ascribe intentions to the brain, even though the thinking process takes place there. No, we ascribe intentions to the whole person, and that’s what we do when we try to interpret, understand or explain the actions and or behaviour performed by individuals. When we want to understand why an individual acts in a certain way, we don’t look in the brain in order to know what his or her intentions are but we derive them from the actions and the situation in which the individual acts. Knowing what a person does is “attributing intentional states” to her. We ask “What are the constitutive features of our practice that account for its explanatory power? That is, what assumptions do we need to make about an agent in order to interpret her behavior successfully? If interpretation is successful, then the assumptions we make about an agent in the process of interpreting her are justified.” In order to know why someone acts, we don’t examine her (or his) brain states, so to the body, but we consider the person that has been constituted by this body and see whether we can ascribe relevant intentions to this person.
Following Dennett, this approach can also be applied to groups, so Tollefsen. Dennett developed the “intentional stance”. “When we adopt the intentional stance toward an entity, we attempt to explain and predict its behavior by treating it as if it were a rational agent whose actions are governed by its beliefs, intentions, and desires”, so Tollefsen, interpreting Dennett. But if this is correct, then we can apply the intentional stance also to groups. Groups are constituted by the individuals that make up a group. Moreover, when we ascribe an intention to an agent, we don’t look for the way it is formed in his or her brain, but we ascribe the intention to the person as a whole. In the same way, even though a group hasn’t a kind of brain (and mind) as an equivalent to a person’s brain (or mind), nonetheless we can ascribe intentions to a group and treat it as if it has. We simply must consider the group as constituted by its members and treat it as a whole.

Note: The quotes are from Tollefsen p. 98. However, the interpretation of her text is mine, and is much wider than what Tollefsen writes here or elsewhere in her book.

Thursday, July 16, 2020


 I have seen Naples. I have seen Lenin (his dead body). However, one wish remained still unfulfilled: to see a comet. And now also this wish has been fulfilled, for a few days ago I took this picture of the comet Neowise near Utrecht, Netherlands. It's a bad picture, indeed (for my as such good camera is not the youngest any longer), but it clearly shows a comet.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Hobbes and Spinoza

Monument for Johan de Witt (to the right) and his 
brother Cornelis, Dordrecht, the Netherlands

Actually a blog of thousand words is too short to do justice to Spinoza’s theory of the state. But you can see it as a very short introduction and maybe it will make that you want to read more about it. It’s worth to do so, for Spinoza was the first major philosopher since antiquity who was an advocate of a democratic system.
Like Hobbes’s state theory also the one developed by Spinoza has been influenced by the political circumstances of the country he lived in. The Dutch Republic was not a real state but a kind of confederation that can be compared with the present European Union. It originated in 1579 as an alliance of provinces against the repressive regime of the King of Spain, who was also Lord of the Netherlands. The revolt that followed led to the independent Republic of the United Netherlands. The provinces were first held together by a common foreign policy and a common defence, but gradually they became more integrated. The Republic was governed by a council of representatives of the united provinces that met in The Hague. In 1672 the Republic was attacked by four countries, including France and England. Although it survived, the result was much unrest. Its most important political leader Johan de Witt, who in practice functioned as a kind of Prime Minister, was murdered by a mob, and William III, prince of Orange, was installed as the new Stadtholder (the function had been empty since 1650). In a time that questions like republicanism or monarchy, and the influence of the aristocracy, civilians and the people in general were much discussed, Spinoza wrote two political texts: the Theologico-Political Treatise and the Political Treatise. I want to concentrate my remarks on the latter, even if it hasn’t been completed.
The political unity Spinoza had in mind was the city state. This was just as in the Dutch Republic where actually all important political decisions that influenced the life of the citizens were taken by the town councils. Like for Hobbes, also for Spinoza a political unity is a kind of contract – or “statute” as Spinoza calls it – between people and highest authority. The aim of the statute is peace and safety for everybody. It is the authority that determines what is good and bad, justice and injustice, etc. and that determines the laws and rules that the citizens must obey. It’s also this authority that interprets the law and determines when it is in the interest of all to break the law.
On the face of it, this is not really different from what Hobbes says. What distinguishes Spinoza from Hobbes is the way he elaborates these background ideas. According to Spinoza, they can be realized in three types of state: a monarchy, an aristocracy or a democracy. In the first kind of state there is only one ruler, the king. However, this is only a matter of theory for in practice there is never just one ruler: the king needs advisors, delegates a part of his power to generals and friends, etc. So, what looks like an absolute monarchy is actually a kind of aristocracy but then an aristocracy of the worst kind. Moreover, a monarchy has many other defects, which I’ll pass over, but it’s clear that a monarchy is a not a good political system according to Spinoza.
In an aristocracy it is not one person that rules the state but several do. They have been chosen from the people but the difference with a democracy is that the right to rule belongs to a selected part of the population while in a democracy basically everybody has this right. Spinoza calls this selected group the patricians and certainly here he thinks of the practice in the cities in the Dutch Republic, where the governments were in the hands of patricians. An aristocracy is better than a monarchy, since there is not a king (who is the only authority) who can die, but an aristocratic council that can exist forever. Moreover, the charge of power is often too big for only one ruler, while a council, if it has enough members, can divide the charges and rule together. Moreover, the aristocratic authority is not dependent on one person who can be too young, too old, be unstable and fickle, etc. However, also an aristocracy has its defects and an important defect is nepotism: Although the patricians in power are officially chosen, actually they try to be succeeded by their children and relatives (as was the practice in the Dutch Republic). But since the decisions by an aristocratic council are taken in the interest of the patricians, so only in the interest of a part of the population, in practice it can never have absolute authority, even if it has a formal authority. It must always fear the population as a whole (see what happened to Johan de Witt). This makes that in an aristocracy the patricians must make concessions to the population.
Now it would be interesting to know Spinoza’s view on what he sees as the best political system: democracy. This is the system in which all citizens of a country basically have the right to get political representative functions and have public offices. Spinoza begins with a wide definition of who are citizens in a country, but, alas, before the description starts what a democracy really involves, the manuscript of the Political Treatise breaks off.
Unlike Hobbes, who thinks that only a person who has all authority in his hands can protect the peace and safety of the subjects of a state, Spinoza thinks that the more authority is spread over the population (in the sense that all can participate in it), the more peace and safety is guaranteed. This makes him one of the first advocates of the modern idea of democracy.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Leviathan: Hobbes’s theory of the state

Thomas Hobbes’s main work Leviathan is a book about the state. Until now I have written in my recent blogs about other aspects of the Leviathan, but this time I want to write on Hobbes’s view on the state. It is especially treated in Part II, titled “Of Commonwealth” with some important introductory sections in the last chapters of Part I (“Of Man”).
A man is a wolf to another man, so Hobbes. We have seen this in my last blog. The consequence is that society is a war of all against all, or at least it is a situation of armed peace with real fighting never far away. According to Hobbes, there are three reasons for the conflicts between men: competition in order to gain profits; confidence in order to live safe; and glory. This state of war is the natural state of man. Injustice doesn’t exist: We cannot talk about what is good and bad or right and not right in such a situation, for where a common power that keeps man under control doesn’t exist, there is no law, and where there is no law, there is no injustice. However, people fear death and they want to live a pleasant life. Therefore they want peace. By reasoning this way, Hobbes gets at his first law of nature: We must seek peace and strive for it. However, this is only possible – and that is the second law of nature – if man is willing to give up as much of his rights and liberty as is necessary to get this peace, provided that others are willing to do the same. These two rules are the core of Hobbes’s Law of Nature.
So, people want safety and peace and for this they have to take the safety and peace of others into account. This problem can only be solved if there is a common power and a kind of state, so Hobbes. This can happen only, if men conclude a treaty by which they hand over their rights to a sovereign or to a leading council. The function of this authority is to give the people safety, so that they can build up a good life with which they are satisfied. When people have concluded such a treaty, they have given birth to the great LEVIATHAN. The authority they have installed this way contains the essence of the state, or “commonwealth”, as Hobbes actually says. This essence is “one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the authority, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence.” This authority is called the sovereign and all the others are called subjects. (see the end of chapter xvii of Hobbes’s Leviathan) In this state it is the sovereign who makes the laws that the subjects must obey. There is one restriction: A subject keeps his right to protect his or her own life; the sovereign is not allowed to take the lives of the subjects.
This is the core of Hobbes’s theory of the state. What remains in Part II of his Leviathan is mere elaboration. It is clear that Hobbes is an advocate of an authoritarian state, governed by an autocratic ruler, or otherwise by an autocratic council. Although Hobbes doesn’t say so, implicit in the Leviathan is that he prefers the former, the one-man autocracy. Once the sovereign has been chosen, the influence of the subjects is almost nil. Of course, the sovereign has his advisers and he has to take care of the safety of the subjects and must take care that they can promote their welfare. He must also respect their lives and a few other rights. But basically the sovereign rules alone. There is no place for a kind of democracy or a kind of state without a central authority, like the Republic of the Netherlands in his days (several times in the Leviathan Hobbes refers to the Republic). This makes his state theory different, for example, from the state theory developed by Spinoza not long after Hobbes wrote down his one. Spinoza discussed several types of state in his Political Treatise. He clearly preferred a kind of democracy, although he wondered to what extent it could be realized. Not so Hobbes. A democratic state even didn’t come in his mind, although there had already been examples of such types of state. The most famous democracy was, of course, Athens in the 5th and 4th century B.C. Apparently, Hobbes didn’t see it as a realistic option. History proved him to be wrong – the history of England and the UK in the first place did.

Monday, June 29, 2020

End of the Corona Crisis

Sooner or later the corona crisis will come to an end. A photographic impression how it will happen.

Monday, June 22, 2020

“A man is a wolf to another man”?

Thomas Hobbes’s main work Leviathan is a book about the state. Part II of the book, titled “Of Commonwealth” discusses the elements, characteristics etc. of the state as such; Part III (“Of Christian Commonwealth”) discusses the Christian state and Part IV discusses the “Kingdom of Darkness”. But here I am not interested in the state, but I am interested in Man, and that’s what the first part of the book is about. (I write Man with a capital in order to indicate that I mean the human being and not only the male version).
In order to understand Hobbes’s portrayal of Man, one must know that he wrote Leviathan in a period of civil war. The book was published in 1651, the year that the English Civil War ended. Two years before, for the first time in history an English king had been executed. Did these circumstances make Hobbes’s portrayal of Man so negative? He didn’t use the expression “A man is a wolf to another man” in the Leviathan (but in his De Cive — by the way, the saying is not from Hobbes, but it is an old Latin proverb —), but this expression fully shows the way Hobbes thinks about Man, if you interpret its meaning this way that basically Man is cruel to other Men and that Man thinks only and only of himself (or herself, of course, but for Hobbes Man is only a masculine being). This is a bit strange, for actually a wolf is a social animal.
So for Hobbes Man is quite an egoist being. He is there only for himself, and maybe with the exception of his family, he doesn’t care about others. Man is also a materialistic being. “Higher values” don’t count. I can give here only some illustrations, but for Hobbes, love is a desire of the flesh, or friendliness at most. Religion is a kind of fear for an invisible power. Happiness is a continuing desire of going from one object to another, and once you have it, you use it get the next one. As if there isn’t more in it.
But alas, Man’s fellow Men are of the same kind. The result is that Man is continuously at war with his fellow Men; maybe not always in practice, but the possibility of war is the background of everything Man does in relation to other Men. This situation can be solved only in one way, so Hobbes: An agreement between all Men to appoint or choose a kind of higher authority, the Sovereign or otherwise a kind of sovereign council that rules society. But I’ll not talk about this, for then I am in the field of politics.
There are certainly many people who agree with Hobbes’s view of Man: Man need to be tamed and for this we need a dictator, a strong man. Otherwise society will be a mess, they think. However, I think that such a view of Man is completely at odds with reality. As I have expounded in my blog on shared intentions two weeks ago (, Man came to be different from the other primates and from the other animals in general just by becoming less egoist than those fellow animals. Man’s fellow animals could cooperate, indeed. Anyway, primates like chimpanzees could (and can) and wolves could (and can). However, they cooperate from egoist motives, as we have seen in this blog two weeks ago. Man, on the other hand, doesn’t have only egoistic intentions when cooperating with others, but Man has also intentions that s/he shares with others. Philosophers and psychologists still disagree what this sharing involves, but one thing is clear: In one way or another Man can and does share intentions with others. Moreover, Man doesn’t only share intentions with others, — which manifests itself, for instance in the way Men make plans; have you ever seen animals that come together and make plans? — but s/he also cares for others, and then I mean others who don’t belong to her or his family. Man is a sharing if not caring individual. An individual, indeed, for Man is often egoist. However, Man is not only an egoist; egoism is only one of his/her characteristics. Man is social at heart. Man is a sharing and caring individual. Don’t you believe it? I’ll give you a simple illustration. You are walking in a street. A woman passes you. Then you see that her purse falls on the ground. What do you do? I agree that not all people will do so, but I guess that you pick it up, and you call: “Madam, madam! You have lost your purse!” And you give it back. And if she doesn’t hear you, you’ll run after her and stop her. You’ll do it, although she is a stranger for you; although you’ll never see her again in your life; and although nobody will know that it was you who picked up the purse. A man is a wolf to another man?

Monday, June 15, 2020

False reasoning in Covid-19 times

Leviathan swimming in the Rhine near Utrecht.

False reasoning often happens. I think that it is as old as humanity. It’s true, often it can be difficult to develop a correct argumentation, and I am afraid that I, too, am sometimes guilty of using incorrect reasonings. Being a philosopher I should have developed a professional immunity against false reasoning, but alas, a man is human and makes mistakes that are human. Philosophers are no exception. In fact, it is not strange that people fail to see through complicated reasonings that are even difficult to understand for philosophers. However, people also often fail to see through reasonings that are transparent and that have been rejected as false already since long ago and in many books. Apparently, correct reasoning is quite a job and one has to learn it.
I became again aware of all this, when I started to read one of the most famous books of modern philosophy: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although this book is especially known because Hobbes presents here his political theory, its first part is devoted to man and also to the way man reasons. Everybody should read this part of the book, for you can learn a lot of it that is useful in daily life. Don’t be afraid that the text is difficult to understand, for the book is clearly written and very readable, especially when you take a modern edition. In this blog I cannot give more than an impression of what you find there, so I just pick out a fragment that I find striking in the light of the present corona crisis. In my last blog I promised to write again on other themes, but I cannot help that it stays in my mind.
Since I am reading a Dutch paper edition, I have quoted for this blog from the online text of the Renascence edition. It gives the original text, which may be a bit difficult for some readers, but, as said, modern editions are very well readable. The fragment I have chosen is from Part I, chapter 11 (, pp. 90-91):

“Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive. And hence it comes to pass that in all places men that are grieved with payments to the public discharge their anger upon the publicans, that is to say, farmers, collectors, and other officers of the public revenue, and adhere to such as find fault with the public government; and thereby, when they have engaged themselves beyond hope of justification, fall also upon the supreme authority, for fear of punishment, or shame of receiving pardon. Ignorance of natural causes disposeth a man to credulity, so as to believe many times impassibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true, being unable to detect the impossibility. And credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that ignorance itself, without malice, is able to make a man both to believe lies and tell them, and sometimes also to invent them.”

What the first part of the quotation says, for instance, is that the messenger is blamed for the contents of the message, even when he has nothing to do with it. We see this also sometimes in these days that the coronavirus rules the world. A virus has spread from Wuhan in China all over the world. No matter how it came there, once it existed and spread, there was only one thing to do: Try to stop it. Therefore, in most countries the government ordered a lockdown or a semi-lockdown. At first, most people agreed, but already soon people began to grumble. Many complained not about the effectiveness of the measures and were asking whether the governments had taken the right measures, but more and more people began (and begin) to say: Why does the government do all this to us? Hasn’t the virus already gone back somewhat? Haven’t we correctly followed the restrictions imposed on us? As if it is the government that has spread the disease and as if it is the government that has made people ill. It’s true, governments often make mistakes or deceive people, but the disease is not spread by governments but by a virus. For instance, on a press conference by the Dutch Prime Minister, this question was asked: “Mr. Rutte, already for some weeks you see that the Dutch behave very well and maintain the corona restrictions. Nevertheless, the Dutch government extends the term of the restrictions with another three weeks. How can the latter be reconciled with the former?” Implicitly in this question the Dutch government is hold responsible for the necessity of the restrictions, while actually it is the spread of the virus that makes the restrictions inevitable.
In the second part of the quotation, Hobbes says: Ignorance of the facts makes that people tend to believe all kinds of impossible things that cannot be true. Take for example so-called conspiracy theories, which I have discussed in a blog some time ago ( Many people don’t know or don’t understand where viruses come from. So, even if scientists say that the origin of the corona virus or what else we are talking about  is natural, many people don’t understand what this involves. Therefore, they invent their own explanations. In the past, people often thought that a disease was the scourge of God. Nowadays conspiracy theories have taken its place.
Old books and less old books contain a lot of wisdom, but what is this wisdom worth if we ignore it? 

Monday, June 08, 2020

Shared intentions

Musica Temprana in Vredenburg/Tivoli, 15 December 2019

Now that the lockdown gradually is lifted in many countries, maybe it is time to write in my blogs about something else than about themes related to the corona pandemic, as I have done during the past weeks. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore it so long as the world hasn’t returned to normality, or maybe to a “new normality”, as some say, thinking that the world will never be again as it was before. Therefore I want to talk about a phenomenon that is wider, although it has made all these measures against the coronavirus possible: shared intentionality.
As Michael Tomasello upholds in his Origins of Human Communication and in other works, the main behavioural characteristic that makes men different from all other living beings on earth, including their nearest relatives the apes, is the phenomenon of shared intentionality. As such the idea of shared intentionality is not thought out by Tomasello, but it has already been used by philosophers before him, albeit often in different wordings, like David Hume, or recently Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert and Michael E. Bratman. The latter says about it, for instance: “a shared intention is not an attitude in the mind of some superagent consisting literally of some fusion of … two agents. There is no single mind which is the fusion of your mind and mine. … [N]or should we assume that shared intentions are always grounded in prior promises. My conjecture is that we should, instead, understand shared intention … as a state of affairs consisting primarily of appropriate attitudes of each individual participant and their interrelations.” (p. 111) In this way, it “helps coordinate our planning; and it can structure relevant bargaining. And it does all this in ways to track [our common goal]. Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (p. 112).
The end of this quotation is a bit confusing, for shared intention is not combined individual intentions but it is a phenomenon of its own, which Bratman certainly will endorse. In order to explain the difference between a combination of purely individual intentions and a shared intention, I’ll use an example discussed by Tomasello somewhere in his book, which I have adapted and extended.
Apes, like chimpanzees, don’t have shared intentions but they can combine individual intentions, so Tomasello. Let’s assume that a group of chimpanzees is hungry and goes out hunting. They see a prey and one chimp, the leader, starts to pursue the prey. When the prey flees to the right, one or a few chimps go to the right in order to stop it. When then it flees to the left, another chimp goes to the left, and in order to prevent that the prey may escape in a forward direction, a few chimps try to close this escape route. But each chimp basically reacts as the situation is. Once the prey has been caught, each chimpanzee takes as much of it as it can get, and if some chimps come too late, then sorry for them. If a chimp gives a part to such a latecomer, it is only in order to prevent that this latecomer will rob his piece of the meal from his hands.
How differently a hunting party is organized by men. Before the hunt begins, there is a meeting and the hunters agree who will be the drivers and who will shoot. Among the drivers it is determined who will go to the right and who will go to the left and who will close the front escape route. And so they act when a prey is discovered. After the hunt the preys are brought together and divided, each participant getting a fair share. A part of it is kept apart for those who’ll come later and maybe also a piece for John who couldn’t participate because he was ill.
These two cases clearly show what the difference is between combined individual intentions and a shared intention. The chimps know what the other chimps will do, they understand their intentions and in this way they cooperate with others and perform their actions in order to fulfil their individual wishes to get a piece of meat. But in the end everybody decides for and cares for him or herself. How different it is with man. Of course, man often behaves individualistically and egoistically but fundamentally they can share their intentions and take care of others, also if the others are not present, but do belong to the group.
Now that I have come so far, I cannot help to return to the problem of the corona crisis that determines so much our intentions these days. My blog last week started with the question “Should we sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of the population health?”. My answer to this question was “yes”. However, I can give this answer only, if I know what a shared intention is and if I can have shared intentions. Even more, I can ask this question only if I can have shared intentions. But to quote Tomasello, although apes “have human-like skills for understanding individual intentionality, they do not have human-like skills and motivations of shared intentionality.” (p. 181) The upshot is, while men can organize a lockdown, apes cannot.

- Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008
- Michael E. Bratman, “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. 109-129.

Monday, June 01, 2020

The prevention paradox

“Should we sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of the population health? Or should we simply help those who really need it? These are questions that health authorities in all countries struggle with.” These are the first sentences of an article that I came across on the Internet. Today, in a time that the coronavirus rules the world, these questions are extremely relevant. For were all these measures to stop the new virus really necessary? Many countries were locked down in order to bring this new virus to a halt, and although the figures are much higher than in case of a flu pandemic, often the number of victims was much less than initially expected. It looks like a paradox, a prevention paradox: Steps were taken to prevent a calamity that didn’t occur. However, as the Wikipedia explains, this is not a paradox but an example of a self-defeating prophecy. Nevertheless, a prevention paradox does exist and it is also relevant in the corona crisis.

The term prevention paradox was coined in an article in 1981 by the epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose. It is based on the dilemma which strategy to choose in case of a widespread disease: an individual approach or a population approach. Take these examples, which I quote from the World Medical Card website (see Sources below), but which are also often mentioned on other relevant websites:

- An American study found that most alcohol-related harm and injuries occurs among individuals who are not alcoholic and have alcohol consumption habits which are considered normal and not harmful.
- The risk of giving birth to children with Downs syndrome is much higher among women over 40 years of age than among younger women. However, only 13% of children with downs are born from mothers over 40, and 51% of children with downs syndrome are born from mothers under the age of 30, who have the lowest risk.
- Although individuals who are overweight and who do not exercise, are at relatively higher risks of dying from coronary heart disease, there are in absolute quantities far more deaths from this disease among individuals who are not overweight and who have led a life with normal healthy levels of physical activity.

The paradox is then that while the majority of the population has a low risk of a certain disease and a minority has a high risk, the absolute numbers of people who get the disease is much bigger among the low risk group than among the high risk group; therefore prevention measures that concentrate on the low risk group are more effective than measures that concentrate on the high risk group. Of course, nobody wants to say that you must not help people who are hit by a disease, but if your financial or other sources are limited, from a cost-effective point of view it is often better to invest them in prevention than in treatment, or, in other words, it can be more advantageous to invest your means in the low risk group than in the high risk group, since it saves more lives.

This conclusion makes the prevention paradox also relevant for the corona crisis. Again and again you hear: Why all these measures that hit me who is healthy and doesn’t belong to the high risk group? Why then a lockdown that restricts my freedom? In view of the prevention paradox the answer is clear: It is because general restrictions save more lives than individual treatments of corona patients, certainly if the big number of patients would make that the health system breaks down. Moreover, in the end, the economy as a whole may be better well off as well. To quote an example of the Encyclopedia of Public HealthThe widespread wearing of seat-belts has produced benefits to many societies but little benefit to most individuals.” Nonetheless, we all profit.

P.S. On the question whether a general lockdown is allowed, if it restricts individual freedom, of course, also my blog on the trolley problem is relevant ( )

- “Prevention paradox”, Wikipedia,
- “The prevention paradox”, World Medical Card,
- “Prevention Paradox”, Encyclopedia of Public Health,

Monday, May 25, 2020

Face masks

In these days that the coronavirus rules the world, we see a new phenomenon: People publicly wear face masks. Also in the past (especially in East Asia) people sometimes wore them in public, usually in order to prevent that others would be infected when you had caught a cold or when the air was seriously polluted. But never before people used face masks on such a large scale in order to protect themselves and others against a nasty virus, the coronavirus. Some wear it voluntarily, others do it while the authorities have ordered it; or while it is prescribed in public transport or in shops; and so on. And it looks reasonable to wear a face mask in order to stop the coronavirus, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, wearing a face mask for this reason is not undisputed. This is what the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which advises the Dutch government, says about it:
- Wearing a face mask in daily life has no surplus value.
- Face masks have only sense, if there are patients who are seriously ill and who spread many viruses.
- Face masks must be used in the proper way and must be replaced at least twice a day.
- Therefore, in the Netherlands face masks are recommended only for medical personnel.
So, according to the RIVM it has no sense to wear face masks in public. Not only the RIVM says so. Also the World Health Organisation (WHO) doesn’t recommend them. And indeed, investigations into the effectiveness of face makes against infections of the same type show that their public use is not very useful. For instance:
- In twelve relevant investigations only three show a positive effect of wearing face masks. Moreover, the chance to become ill decreased with only 6%.
- An Australian research team investigated in Vietnam about 1,600 people wearing face masks. Some used official face masks, some used cloth face mask. The latter group caught more viruses than without a face mask, so they were worse off.
Studies like these confirm the views of the RIVM and the WHO. I think that such studies show that a good face mask – not necessarily a medical face mask – properly used may have some sense and may decrease the chance to become ill somewhat. But how much is somewhat? 6%, 12%, 25%, 40%? However, the practice is that face masks in public are not properly used and for that reason they may be counterproductive: People can get more viruses just by using face masks. Then they have more chance to become ill. Nevertheless, authorities often prescribe face masks against the spread of the coronavirus and many people use them, not only because they are prescribed but because they think it helps. Why? I think that there are several sociological and psychological factors that are relevant:
- It is counterintuitive, so against intuition, not to use a face mask. A face mask looks like a screen that stops the virus. However, people don’t realize that viruses are very small. You cannot see them and they can pass holes so little that you can’t see them. Viruses, caught in the mask can be spread by your hands, if you touch the face mask. Sooner than you realize, face masks become dirty. Etc.
- People are imitators: Other people wear them as well, and are they so stupid that they wear them, if they are not useful? Moreover, many people feel ill at ease if they are one of the few who don’t do what everybody considers normal.
- Authorities prescribe them, so it must make sense. But authorities often don’t follow expert advice (and as shown above, expert advice – at least the RIVM and WHO – discourages from non-medical use of face mask). Besides, you can be fined if wearing a face mask is prescribed by law and you don’t use it.
- However, if people wear face masks, they become on the alert that they must be careful and that a nasty virus is about everywhere, and that it is better to keep distance from others.
- On the other hand, a face mask can give you the false idea that you are protected and/or that others are protected against your viruses. Then it can happen that people who have only mild complaints don’t stay at home thinking that they will not infect others.
Should we use face masks or shouldn’t we? I think that only one conclusion is possible: Be careful and stay safe.

- De Volkskrant, 8 May 2020

Monday, May 18, 2020


Exceptionally, this week's blog consists only of a photo, titled "Incubation", without further explanation. It's up to you to give it an interpretation.

Monday, May 11, 2020


Self-confinement has become a vogue word today. Although it exists already longer, only few people such as physicists used it (it’s a physical term). My Oxford and Collins English Dictionaries don’t give it, nor does my English-Dutch Van Dale dictionary. But since a few months everybody uses it and everybody applies it. From fear to be infected by the new coronavirus, people stay at home as much as possible trying not to become ill. In some countries, like France, Spain and Italy people are or were even ordered by law to stay at home and there we can better speak of confinement, although many people agree with the measure (but you can be fined if you leave your home without a legal reason). In other countries, like the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, people are seriously requested to stay at home, but there are no sanctions if they don’t. Nevertheless, also there most people comply with the request. Then we can really speak of self-confinement.
Although the term self-confinement in its social sense is new, the idea isn’t. Introverts like it to do things alone and sometimes avoid other people, which doesn’t mean, however, that they retire themselves deliberately from the world. They simply like it to avoid others now and then. Writers often retire themselves and close themselves off from contacts with others, so that they can better concentrate on the writing process, although some authors, like once Sartre, don’t mind to create new work in – once – smoky and noisy rooms like cafes. Here I want to talk about philosophers who isolated themselves.
For many who know a bit about the history of philosophy a clear case of self-confinement is Montaigne. Montaigne was a counsellor of the Parlement (high court) in Bordeaux. However, he hated the intrigues and machinations there. His father died in 1568 and Montaigne inherited the castle and the estate and so “in 1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the château, his so-called ‘citadel’, in the Dordogne, where he almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair”, as the Wikipedia tells us. ( In other words, Montaigne went into self-confinement. However, do you really believe that an ordinary country gentleman who has isolated himself from the world will be urgently asked by the King of France to become mayor of Bordeaux ten years later? No, of course. Montaigne retired from his job and the world of the Parlement, but he held friendly relations with his neighbours like the Marquis de Foix, travelled to Paris, was a mediator in political conflicts between the King of France and the King of Navarra, etc., etc. You can read all this in the outstanding biographies by Desan and Bardyn. It’s true that Montaigne regularly confined himself to his Tour for writing essays. In that sense Montaigne confined himself, but he didn’t retire himself from the world.
A philosopher who does have lived almost in self-confinement now and then was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Sometimes Wittgenstein wanted to flee from the people around him and to isolate himself from the world. Therefore he built (with his own hands) a cabin on a fjord far away in Skjolden in Norway. Certainly then in 1913 Skjolden must really have been an isolated village. It must have been difficult to get there, not only to Skjolden but also to the cabin. I was there in 2011 (see my blog dated 29 July 2011) and you could get to the cabin only by climbing along a steep, stony and dangerous path. Or you could come there via the lake and climb from the shore under the cabin to the cabin. If there is one place where a philosopher lived that can be described as self-confinement it is Wittgenstein’s cabin in Norway. He used it now and then between 1913 and 1951.
Another philosopher who sometimes lived in a kind of self-confinement was Friedrich Nietzsche, although also Nietzsche didn’t live an isolated life. From 1881 till 1888 Nietzsche often stayed in the little Sils Maria in Switzerland, always in summer. However, the philosopher didn’t stay there because he wanted to isolate himself, but he suffered from migraine and here in the healthy climate of the Swiss Alps he felt well. He made walks through the mountains and he had always a notebook with him in which he wrote down his philosophical thoughts.
Here we see three famous cases of philosophers who are known to have lived in a kind of self-confinement. It will not be difficult to mention more. Two other well-known cases are Heidegger and Thoreau. The former often retired himself to his Hütte (hut) near Todtnauberg, Germany, where he looked for rest and wrote many of his important works. Thoreau built himself a hut near the Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he tried to live a natural life. But also Thoreau didn’t live there an isolated live. He often went to the nearby Concord and also received guests in his hut. Moreover, he hasn’t lived there continuously. But be it as it may, such cases make clear that even if you confine yourself or have to confine yourself to a certain place in order to live there in isolation, this doesn’t mean that you have yourself cut off from the world. The latter is really exceptional. Most self-confiners are no hermits. When people confine themselves or are confined to a certain place, it is for an apparent reason and usually only temporarily. Nobody can survive in complete isolation, for in the end humans are social beings.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Freedom in corona times

I always avoid to write here about themes that I have treated before. Nevertheless, sometimes it happens. It can be that I have forgotten what I had written about before, which is not strange if you realize that I write these blogs already for thirteen years. Or it can be that I want to add something to what I have written before, or that new developments put an old theme in a new light. Now, I want to talk again about the so-called Frankfurt-style cases (named after Harry Frankfurt, who discussed them first). In the first place, Frankfurt-style cases are about responsibility but they are also about freedom, and in that respect they are relevant for the corona crisis. In this blog I am going to discuss such a Frankfurt-style case and I’ll show how it is relevant for our idea of freedom in the corona crisis.
When we talk about freedom, there is a tendency to think that it means that you can and are allowed to do what you like. But the present corona measures, and especially the forced self-confinement, restrict us very much. Therefore, you often hear: Our freedom is at stake. It’s true that some government leaders abuse the crisis by intentionally increasing their powers, more than is necessary to bring the virus under control. Other authorities issue weird measures like a ban on gardening. However, here I don’t want to talk about this but on the idea of freedom. For, when philosophers think of freedom, usually they don’t think of an unlimited individual choice to do what you like, but they have something else in mind. They call someone free, if this person can follow his/her own choices. This can also happen if the number of options is limited, by nature or by man. To be exactly, a person is free if
- s/he has alternative options to choose from
- if this choice is her or his own choice.
In my blog dated 23 February 2012 I discussed this Frankfurt-style case (see there for the references): Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a mechanism in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should Black detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black is prepared to activate his mechanism to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. As a matter of fact, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes.
Take now the present corona crisis. A new nasty virus has spread all over the world: the coronavirus. It makes that many people must be hospitalized, and many people infected by the virus die. The medical services threaten to become overloaded and to collapse. It is absolutely necessary to take radical measures, including forcing people to stay at home, the so-called self-confinement. You are a rational person and according to you the only option is to accept the measures proclaimed by your government, including self-confinement. And so you do. You leave your house only for buying food, for physical exercise or for other reasons allowed by the government. It’s true that, if you would break the coronavirus emergency laws, you would get a high fine and be forced by the police to return home. However, this never happens, for you are fully convinced that the best you can do is obeying the coronavirus emergency laws. In other words, it’s your free choice to follow these laws.
As said, Frankfurt-style cases like the one I just presented were used to discuss the question whether someone is responsible for his or her actions, even if in practice s/he has only one option. However, they tell us also much about the idea of freedom. As we have seen, a common idea of freedom is the view that you can and are allowed to do what you like. I think that it is acceptable to add here “unless it hurts other people and affects the freedom of others”. Now the present situation is such that, unless people restrict their usual behaviour, they’ll hurt other people: If they would keep going along with family, friends, colleagues and others in the usual way, many people would die of the coronavirus and many others would become seriously ill and some of them would become handicapped in some way. This makes that restricting yourself and even going into self-confinement is the only kind of behaviour that respects the freedom of others. Actually, this is the only rational way to do. And so you conclude that the only thing you can reasonably do is to accept the coronavirus emergency laws. That you would be fined and be forced to stay at home, if you break these laws, doesn’t even come to your mind. In the end it’s not your government’s fault that there is such a nasty virus in the world. Following these laws is your own choice.
The upshot is that you can still be free, even if you have only one option. And this is the situation of the present corona crisis. So, don’t complain that your freedom is affected by these emergency measures. Another question is, of course, which measures are the best and whether the measures taken are the best, let alone whether some governments or politicians abuse the corona crisis for increasing their power.

And so it happens that the Frankfurt-style cases no longer are thought experiments but have become real-life scenarios.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The consolation of philosophy

Now that the coronavirus rules the world, I wonder what philosophy can mean for us. Can it help answer new questions that we come across? Can it help answer life questions? Can philosophy give us consolation now that our life have been turned upside down and we have lost our hold on what we are doing and on the world around us? A world in which we see so many people die, including people who are so dear to us? In order to find an answer how philosophy could console me I bought a book that I always wanted to buy but never did, one of the most read books in philosophy, namely The consolation of philosophy by Anicus Manlius Severinus Boethius.
Boethius (c. 477-524) was a Roman philosopher and politician, who lived in the latter years of the Roman Empire. He had an outstanding political career but he was falsely accused of high treason and executed. During his time in prison Boethius wrote his Consolation. It would become one of the most famous and most-discussed philosophy books of the Middle Ages and it is still widely read. With right. It’s a deep book that make you think. It contains a cosmology and treats questions that are important for everybody who wants to think about life and destination, free will and fortune, good and bad, and much more. It treats questions that are especially relevant for Christians without being a theological book or a Christian book. Boethius combines pagan Roman and Greek philosophy with Christian philosophy. The structure of the book is also special. It contains a conversation between Philosophy and Boethius in prison, where Philosophy has come to console him. But did Philosophy succeed to console Boethius? I am doubtful about it. My conclusion is that fate is as it is, and that’s it. Is this consolation, is it comfort? Nevertheless, Boethius’s Consolation has us much to say that is relevant to the present fate of the world: the coronacrisis. It asks relevant questions and it gives relevant observations, especially in Books (= chapters) I and II. In the next section of this blog I give a compilation of quotes from these books, which I present without comment.

Philosophy: “Do you remember that you are a man?” Boethius: “Of course, I do” Ph.: “Do you not know that you were ever any other thing?” B.: “No,” Ph.: “Now I know, the cause of your malady: you have ceased to know who and what you are. You are confounded with forgetting of yourself; for you cry that you are exiled from your own possessions. And since you do not know what the end of things is, you believe that criminal and wicked men are strong and healthy. And because you have forgotten by what law the world is governed, you think that these mutations of fortune fly about without governor. These are great causes not only of illness, but of death. But I thank the Maker and Author of health that nature has not totally abandoned you. I have a great treatment for your health, and that comes from your true understanding of the governance of the world. Therefore, have no fear; for from this little spark, the light of life shall shine.”
Then Philosophy began to speak in this way, “If I have understood and utterly grasped the causes and habit of your sickness, you are still desiring and longing for your former fortune. Fortune has apparently altered herself toward you. This has perverted the clearness and stability of your heart. However, if you clearly remember the type, the manner, and the works of Fortune, you shall well know that in her, you never had, nor ever lost any fair thing. No sudden mutation can occur without a kind of shifting of the heart. And so, it has befallen that you are a little removed from the peace of your mind.”
What is it that has cast you into mourning and weeping? You have seen some new and unknown thing. You assume that Fortune has changed herself to oppose you; but if you believe that, you are wrong. Those have always been her ways. She has instead shown toward you her own stability in the changing of herself. Just such was she when she flattered you and deceived you to become unlawfully attracted to false goods. You have now known and seen the changing or double face of the blind goddess Fortune. She has shown you her true self. If you approve of her and think her good, then follow her ways and stop complaining; but if you are aggrieved by her false treachery, despise her, and cast away she who plays so hurtfully. For she, who is now the cause of such sorrow to you ought to be the source of peace and joy. She has truly forsaken you. Do you now consider Fortune precious, since she is unfaithful, and when she departs, she leaves a man in sorrow? At the end, it behooves you to suffer with calm spirit, in patience, all that is done within the domain of worldly Fortune.”
“Fortune says to you: ‘When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb, I received you naked and needy of all things. I nourished you with my riches and was ready and attentive to sustain you with my favor and that causes you now to be impatient with me. I surrounded you with all the abundance and glitter of the goods that are rightfully mine. Now it pleases me to withdraw my hand. You have been graced with alien goods. You have no right to complain as though you had lost all your own things. Why do you complain? I have done you no wrong. Riches, honors, and other such things are rightfully mine.’ ”
B.: “Certainly, that’s true but the misery brings a deeper feeling of harm.”
Ph. “Just so, but since you will not cease to consider yourself wretched, have you forgotten the amount and ways of your happiness? If any fruit of mortal things may have any weight or value of happiness, can you ever forget, despite any shock of harm that has befallen, the happiness of the past? If you consider yourself unhappy because the things you deem joyful have passed, there is no reason that you should judge yourself wretched since the things that seem sorrowful will also pass.”
B.: “That’s true, but in all adversities of fortune, the unhappiest kind of contrary fortune is to have had happiness.”
Ph.: “I will not put up with your delicacy that complains so, weeping and anguishing because some things are lacking for your happiness. What man is so satisfied or enjoys such true happiness that he does not strive for, or complain on some account against the quality of his existence? That is why man’s condition is so miserable; for either he doesn’t get enough, or else it doesn’t last forever. No man is reconciled to the condition of his fortune; for always to every man there is missing some unknown thing, or else he dreads losing what he has attained. And add this also: that every well-off man has a delicate constitution; so that, unless everything goes according to his will, he is impatient, for he is not used to adversity. Right away, he is thrown by every little thing; and those are the ones that rob the most fortunate man of perfect happiness. Nothing is wretched but when you believe it so by coddling your feelings. All fortune is blissful to a man who bears it agreeably or with equanimity. Why do you seek happiness outside of yourself, when it has been put inside you? Is there anything more precious to you than yourself? If it is true that the tranquility of your soul makes you mighty over yourself, then you have something in your power that you can never lose, and that Fortune cannot snatch from you. Why are you swept away by idle joys? Why do you embrace alien goods as if they were yours? Fortune can never grant you things that are naturally alien to your nature. It’s true, without doubt, that the fruits of the earth are made to be food for beasts; but if you will fill yourself beyond natures requirements, that is the indulgence of Fortune. For with only a few things, and with a little amount, nature is satisfied. But if you will choke yourself with excess, certainly these things that you will thrust by force into your body will be unpleasing or harmful to you.”
Compiled and adapted from Boethius, The consolation of philosophy, on

This is the human condition that we now have to think about.