Monday, December 28, 2009

The contextuality of personal identity

In my blogs and elsewhere in an article (see ) I argued that the main stream of the identity theoreticians is wrong in claiming that the identity of a person is merely psychological, and I have defended that idea that it has both psychological and physical aspects. In my blog two weeks ago I argued that in addition our personal identity includes the ways relevant other people look at us. This implies that our identity has not only internal aspects but that it has external aspects as well. Although this is a step further away from the mainstream of the personal identity theory, in essence it is still Cartesian, like the mainstream theory is. I mean this: the hidden idea behind both the mainstream theory and my theory is that there is a kind of homunculus, a little man, in you, or a kind of processor, or how you want to define it, that says: “That’s me”.
Now, take this. I find somewhere in a drawer a Giro cheque, which has been there for years, and I want to pay with it, not knowing that it is not valid any longer and that such cheques have been replaced by bank cards already long ago. In the shop I am treated as a stupid man; maybe even as a deceiver. A few years ago, however, I would have been treated as a decent customer. So, what am I? A stupid man or a deceiver or alternatively a decent custom? It depends not on me but on how other people see me and on the rules and regulations of society.
Second. In some countries, like the Netherlands (at least in practice), it is allowed to have little quantities of drugs for personal use. In other countries, however, it is a criminal act that will be heavily punished. So, in some countries I am a person who obeys the law, in other countries I am a criminal.
Third. Hundred years ago, when the movement of conscientious objection of military service arose in the Netherlands, conscientious objectors were looked down on and often despised. It was difficult for them to find a job, some jobs were legally forbidden for them, and they were often seen as traitors of the state. However, after, say, the 1970s, conscientious objectors were seen as respected young men who followed their principles. Being a conscientious objector was often an asset when looking for a job. In Germany now one of the problems of doing away with conscription is that there will be no conscientious objectors any longer, who are highly esteemed and do useful jobs.

The upshot is that my personal identity, what I am, is not only embodied, or actually embodied and “embrained”, but that it is also embedded in the world around us. Personal identity cannot simply be the (maybe hidden) Cartesian idea in us but it depends, at least for a part, on the context in which we live. What we are, good or bad, a philosopher, a man, an inhabitant of the Netherlands, is determined and defined in the world around us. If this context becomes different our identity changes with it as well.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Brother and Bentham’s Panopticon

One might think that Big Brother is a recent invention and that it is related to electronic cameras and TV screens. It is true, the expression “Big Brother” is only 60 years old and has been thought up by George Orwell, and the modern way of observing people is not possible without cameras and screens. Nonetheless, the idea as such is much older. I do not know how old it is, but at the end of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a panopticon. Forty years ago the panopticon has been discussed by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and punish. However, for a description I want to quote Elisheva Sadan’s Empowerment and Community Planning (e-book version, 2004, on , p. 62): “The Panopticon is an eight-sided building surrounded by a wall, with a tower at the center. The … occupants of the structure sit in cells located on floors around the wall. The cells have two apertures – one for light, facing outwards through the wall, and one facing the inner courtyard and the tower. The cells are completely separated from one another by means of walls. … Overseers sit in the tower and observe what happens in every cell. The [occupants] are isolated from one another, and exposed to constant observation. Since they cannot know when they are being observed, they supervise their behavior themselves.” As Foucault (1979, p. 200) explains, the structure can be used “to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy”, or, I want to add, any other person that you want to observe in this way. It is based on the idea of secret observation and secretly controlling what people do. Seen in this way, the panopticon is nothing else than Big Brother before the expression existed.
A panopticon and surveillance cameras are ways of exercising power over people. As such this needs not to be bad. Prisoners are in prison with reason, because of what they have done in the past. Surveillance cameras are often used in order to prevent crime. There are enough people who will misuse the situation if a crime can be done unpunished. But these kinds of power are not personal, as I explained in my last blog. They are embedded in a bureaucratic situation with all the risks of a bureaucratic situation: nobody feels oneself responsible in person for what happens and what the whole organisation does. It is as Sadan says (p.63): “The most diabolical aspect of power is that it is not entrusted in the hands of someone so that he may exercise it upon others absolutely. It entraps everyone who comes close to it: those who exercise power as well as those who are subject to it. The jailers, like the prisoners, are in certain senses also entrapped in the prison.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Personal identity and Big Brother who is watching you

In my last blog I concluded, succinctly formulated, that the eye that is watching you is also within you. People behave differently when they know that they are being watched and when this being watched lasts long it becomes a part of their ways of life. In short, it becomes part of their identities. People living in dictatorships tend to behave differently from the way people in free countries do. The idea that everything you say, at least what you say it in public, can be used against you, makes you cautious if not wary and tends to suppress spontaneous actions and reactions. This way of acting becomes what Bourdieu has called a habitus, and persons used to habitual manners do not suddenly change when the circumstances that made to develop them change, for instance when the dictatorship falls.
This is why surveillance cameras and other measures from the arsenal of Big Brother are so dangerous. Maybe they prevent or suppress some forms of crime but they function like people who are watching you. But there is an important difference: if a person is watching you, for instance a policeman or a bystander, and you are wondering why, you can ask him or her for the reason and you can explain what you are doing if you are doing something weird or something that might be interpreted as a suspicious action. But to whom do you have to go in case of a camera? A camera does not talk back and does not have a microphone where you can complain and explain. Usually you do not know who is behind the camera and where you can find the guard or authority responsible for the camera. And if you know, it takes so much effort and time, that probably you’ll resign to the fact that the camera is there, and you’ll adapt your way of acting. If this happens once, it might not be such a problem, but if it happens often and regularly, it is likely that it becomes a part of your personal habitus in the end. There is a good chance that your spontaneity diminishes. You adapt to the situation and the people around you and you avoid attracting attention. Positively but also negatively, for you never know how what you do is interpreted and you cannot explain what you are doing. Maybe you tend also to avoid certain places. In other words your personal identity has changed. And if it has come so far, Big Brother does no longer need to watch you, for Big Brother is now within you.

P.S. Yes I know that Big Brother reads my blogs, too.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Personal identity and those who are watching you

People have given many definitions of man. Famous is Plato’s definition: Man is a biped without feathers. So Diogenes took a picked chicken and said: Look, Plato’s man! Aristotle defined man as a “zoon politikon”, a political being. Based on what I wrote in my last blog, we can say that man is a being that acts. Or maybe I can better say, man is a being that is able to act, for not acting does not disqualify a being as man, but it is the possibility to act that is essential, and the rest is up to him or her.
But what does it mean that man is able to act as distinct from doing something else? Much has been said elsewhere, also in my blogs, about the difference between behaviour and action, acting with an intention and the like, and I want to refer to that discussion for indicating what acting is. Now I want to discuss another question: Is it really so that it is up to man as man to fill in his or her action capacities? For this suggests that man is free to act within his or her physical limits. However, in a blog of mine some time ago we have seen that the temperature of the cup of coffee in my hands influences my decisions. This is in agreement with other studies. For example, Steven Tipper and Patric Bach have shown that students rated other people as more academic and less sporty when the research situation had been arranged that way that they could give a quick answer than when it had been arranged so that it took more time to answer. The authors concluded that the way we characterize other people depends on the fluency of our response. For Tipper and Bach this says something about social perception, the way we perceive others. For me, these and other studies say as much about how man is constituted. They suggest that man is not simply a bundle of capacities that has to be filled in. Man consists in an interaction between the mental and the physical, something that scientists have discovered already long ago but that many philosophers still seem to deny, if we think of the discussion about personal identity. Unlike what the mainstream of the philosophers who discuss this theme tends to think, our identity is not merely psychological but it is made up of the mixture of our psychological and our physical characteristics and their interactions.
So it seems that we have an identity made up of our psychological and physical aspects, allowing that we develop in time. However, if our judgments of how other people are depend on the fluency of our responses and maybe also on the temperature of the cup of coffee in our hands, then the same must be true for other people who judge us. If this is so, another factor comes into play. In what we do, we often react to how other people react to us, including their judgments of us and their behaviour based on these judgments. On the one hand, this is an aspect that attributes to the development of our identity. But on the other hand, this makes that our identity exists not only of our psychological and physical characteristics and the way they have developed in time, but our identity is also made up of what we are in the eyes of others, at least in the eyes of those others who are significant for us. And we can say, as many eyes there are that see us, as many identities we have in a certain sense. Moreover, these identities are not stable but at least for a part they depend on the temperatures of the cups of coffee in the hands of the onlookers, the fluency of their responses when they judge us and what more there is, which are factors that naturally change continuously.

The upshot of all this is that our personal identity exists not only of our psychological and physical characteristics and our past experiences as identity theorists often think. It is also made up by what is outside us and around us, which involves also that it is not stable. The eyes of our significant onlookers are a relevant factor among those that influence our identity. So, personal identity theorists have to allow for it but until now they haven’t.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The inspiration of Wittgenstein

When I set myself to write my next blog and I do not know what to write about, the Essays of Michel de Montaigne are always a good source for inspiration. However, there is another source that is actually as good as Montaigne’s book. This is the Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In fact, I had read Wittgenstein already long before I had ever heard of Montaigne and, unlike Montaigne, Wittgenstein has had a direct and an indirect influence on my philosophical thinking and work. I can best formulate the difference between Montaigne and Wittgenstein for me in this way: I read Montaigne’s Essays like a novel, but I read Wittgenstein’s work like a scientific treatise.
Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy cannot be summarized in a few statements. But what has always interested me is the importance he has given to the place of language in science and life. For Wittgenstein, language was not simply an instrument for expressing our thoughts, but language has an important influence on the way we think. This made him one of the ancestors of the so-called linguistic turn, the idea that language constitutes our reality and that it is actually the foundation of all our knowledge. This relieves the older idea, which goes back to Immanuel Kant, that the foundation of our knowledge is to be found in consciousness. It is also contrary to the idea, defended by Karl Popper and especially by his follower Hans Albert in discussion with Karl-Otto Apel in Germany, that there is no foundation of knowledge at all but that scientific method is characterized by a continuous criticism. Formulated in contradictory terms: criticism is the foundation of science.
Despite that language was fundamental for Wittgenstein’s thinking and analyzing, in the end he did not found our thinking on language. We can try to give any explanation we like by going to their linguistic sources, be it of scientific facts, be it of facts of life, but such an explanation means nothing to us, when we do not know how to use the explanation, namely how to act on it. In this way, Wittgenstein formulated a fundamental insight, for isn’t it so that there is no longer life where there is no action? Isn’t it so that, if we want to give a foundation to man in all her or his aspects (physical, mental, historical, and who knows what more) it must be action? And then I do not mean only action in the sense of moving arms and legs and other body parts, but I think of action in its widest sense. Also our speaking is an acting, as has been shown in such a powerful way by J.L. Austin, as well as our thinking is.

How inspiring can Wittgenstein be, considering that this was only a comment on the first of the 693 philosophical investigations in the first part of his book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The banality of banality

A few days ago I talked with a friend of mine, a photographer, about taking pictures of banal things. My friend is good in it but most photographers, professionals as well as amateurs, take photos of things that are striking in some way and that are therefore not banal by definition. What is beautiful; a place where something is happening, like an accident or a birthday party, a political fact; a place where we have been because we want to keep a memory of it. These are usual themes for photos. But most photographers do not make pictures of what they consider banal. An odd corner between houses with rubbish. A cable lying on the ground. Laundry on a line. Most photographers do not feel it worth to make a photo of it, unless it has a striking aspect, like a coloured detail which makes it artistically interesting, or when the photographer comes from a country where things are different.
It is the same for philosophy and sociology. Scholars in these fields tend to study what is conspicuous or important for some reason. Violence, the mind, power, and so on; themes that are very important, indeed, and that have a great influence on our life. But isn’t that true, isn’t that even more true for the banal?
Once I published here a blog about waiting. It was because of a few photos that I had taken of this theme. Some time later, I have googled the word. And what did I find? Nothing. Oh no, that is not true. I found my own blog (Google is an excellent searching machine), I found a website where my blog had been bookmarked, and in addition two or three other relevant websites. That was all. But despite the little attention given to waiting, it is an important aspect of our daily life and we spend a lot of time on it! For a substantial part, living is waiting.I’ll not try to give here a list of banal themes that would earn more attention in the sciences and philosophy of man, in my opinion. But is the banal really as banal as many people think? If we say no, it sounds like a contradiction, for we just take no notice of it because it is not worth to give it attention, and that is what makes the banal banal. This seems to be true unless we realize that the banal is often not as innocent as we think. We simply have to think of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is a book on the banality of evil as the subtitle stresses, for realizing that banality can be dangerous. And isn’t it so that the idea of “bread and circuses” shows that it is good for a dictator to promote the interest in the banal in order to stay in power?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Montaigne and the stupidity of man

Readers of my blogs have probably noticed that Michel de Montaigne is one of my favourite philosophers. Even more, I started this series of blogs with a comment on a quotation from Montaigne’s Essays. Actually this is a bit strange, for the ideas of Montaigne have no direct relation with my main field of philosophical interest, which is the philosophy of mind and action. However, Montaigne is one of the few philosophers that I read and reread, since I came into touch with him. No wonder, for Montaigne was ahead of his time, and much of what he wrote more than 400 years ago is still modern. Moreover he has a good style of writing. Montaigne is also one of the few philosophers about whom I have read a lot of books, and the more I know about him and his ideas, the more I want to go into the man and his ideas. Montaigne is stimulating and thought provoking when you read him. He is more stimulating and more thought provoking the more you know about him and his time.
At the moment I am rereading Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”. It is his longest essay and actually it is a book of its own. Montaigne translated the Theologia Naturalis by Raymond of Sabunde, a Catalan philosopher (< 1400-1436), on request of his father and later this work stimulated him to write down his ideas on science, knowledge and theology. I will not write here a summary or appraisal of the work, but it is full of ideas and it shows Montaigne as a precursor of Descartes. Almost any sentence there is worth a comment.
Take for instance this: “Who intelligently collected and compiled the pieces of asinine behaviour of human wisdom, would be able to tell us odd things”. Montaigne wrote this sentence after having listed a series of stupidities of the human mind through the ages. And has there been any change in human behaviour since then? Moreover, we do not need to limit us to “scientific” facts like those cited by Montaigne, for example about the places where people have placed the spirit in the body through the ages (everywhere between head and feet). In politics we find many stupidities of the kind discussed by Montaigne, through the ages before and after him. Take, for instance, the Berlin Wall, which has fallen 20 years ago. How stupid the idea that one can close a country with a wall. What would happen could have been predicted: either it would be a failure in the end, or it would lead to a world war. Happily the first thing occurred. But what was the reaction of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minster of the UK, one day after the fall? She called Michael Gorbachev and asked him to stop the reunification of Germany. “Let they [the East Germans] just stay behind their Wall”, she said to Gorbachev. How stupid. Or take the reaction of François Mitterand, then president of France, who feared the resurrection of a mighty Germany.

In the light of what has happened since then one can nothing but laugh about such stupidities, but in those days it was a serious affaire, like many stupidities of the mind, and giving in would have made a different world. And who would ever have thought in the days of the First and Second World Wars that France and Germany would together commemorate these wars and that these countries would be united in a common union with a common presidency 55 years after the end of the second one of these calamities? It is true, as Montaigne says, the human mind has produced many stupid things through the ages. How unfortunate that we see that often only afterwards and not at the moment that we produce these thoughts.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Outdoor cafes

Streets, and roads (“streets” for short) are places of public life everywhere. Streets have many functions. The main function is connecting places. That’s way they are there. Streets connect places that are important for people for one reason or another, because they live there or work there, because these places have special functions (theatres, shops, railway stations), and so on. In order to go from one such a place to another one you follow the streets that connect them, walking, by bike, by car or how you like. However, streets have many other functions as well. Some people work there like policemen or street sweepers. Other people practice sports along the roads, like running or cycling. Some people use streets for meeting other people, for example by making an appointment at a crossing or on a square with another person or by parading along the streets. Sometimes people use streets for making their opinion public, like in demonstrations. People can use streets also as an extension of private life. On warm summer evenings it can happen in the Netherlands for instance that people put their chairs outdoors on the street sides, for talking with their neighbours, for reading the newspaper, and the like, or for just sitting there. In other countries with a warmer climate a big part of private life takes place in the streets. Streets have other functions as well.
What we often find along streets are outdoor cafes. In most cases, they are (semi-)public extensions of the semi-public life that takes place in the cafes and restaurants along the streets, mainly in the centres of towns and villages, but not only there. I think that outdoor cafes are a very interesting aspect of public and semi-public life along the streets. In a certain sense they reflect local society, since they are often reflections of the life that takes place around the sites where they are. The furnishings are often adapted to the environment or purpose. An outdoor cafe of a highway restaurant is different from an outdoor cafe in a town centre. In some outdoor cafes you find mainly local people, looking for contact with other locals. In other ones you find tourists, stopping for a short rest, a drink and maybe a simple meal. Other ones are for casual passers-by or shopping people looking for a short break. Because they are often so characteristic, I find it interesting to make photos of them (see
One typical photo of such an outdoor cafe is the one here in my blog. It shows an outdoor café on an unpaved surface. Parked cars on the other side of the road. People with race bikes and with a racing outfit standing by or sitting down. In the left upper corner you can just see that it is a place high in the mountains. All this limits the place where the picture can have been taken. It could be in Switzerland, Austria, or Spain, if it is in Europe, or, where it actually has been taken, in France. It is on the Col du Tourmalet, a mountain pass in the French Pyrenees. This col is one of the most famous cols of the Tour de France cycle race, and that’s why it attracts many bike tourists.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Truth (2)

When we admit, like I did in my blog last week, that we can never know that a statement is true, and that things expressed in it can always be different from what we originally thought that they are, truth can no longer be something absolute. However, it can serve as a guideline. For when I argue that there are only subjective viewpoints and interpretations of the world around us, I do not want to say that any viewpoint and any interpretation will do. It is a bit like what George Orwell said in his Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. In the same way we can say: All statements are true (namely from a subjective point of view) but some statements are truer (namely what they say is nearer to reality) than other statements. And because we prefer statements that are truer above statements that are less true, truth can serve as a guideline. This is basic knowledge in science and it is what science is about: to produce truer statements. However, that truth is a guideline needs not to be limited to science but it applies to social life as well: What we think that is true in social life from our point of view may appear to be fundamentally different from another viewpoint. But many people think that their own truths are the only truths and some may even be prepared to die for them and to make other people die for them instead of talking about their truths. Actually matters are more complicated, for truth in science is not exactly the same as truth in social life. But just this brings the idea that one has to talk and not to fight about fundamental differences even nearer to the truth.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Some people, like Tarski, say that a statement is true if what it says corresponds with reality. But how do we know what reality is so that we can compare this statement with it? For we do not have an objective criterion for determining what is real. How do we know that a statement is true if what we see as real depends in the end on the subjective viewpoints of the observer and on his or her place in the world, so on his or her interpretation of the world? For this reason we can reach an intersubjective idea of what is real at most. Already Plato explained in his Legend of the Cave that what we see is not reality as such but a representation of reality. It is only with this representation that we can compare our statement.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Boxing and the peace movement

Recently the most important Dutch peace movement IKV Pax Christi held its yearly Peace Week. In order to attract new young people as peace activists a short video has been published on the Internet with a leading role for Jan Pronk, president of IKV and a former Dutch cabinet minister who performed also several high functions for the United Nations. In this video we see Pronk entering the training room of his wrestling school in a boxing outfit. He looks around and sees only an old man there, hardly able to do his exercises. Apparently it is not the right opponent for him. Pronk walks a bit around and starts with his boxing workout. While doing that he is a bit daydreaming about how he beats an opponent in a wrestling match. Then he wakes up again and he sees the old man playing chess with another old man instead of doing his workout. Next we see a poster with the text: “Wanted: A New Generation of Peace Fighters”. The video ends with a call to come to the Night of Peace. ( ; the website is in Dutch).
This video is not the only instance that the Dutch peace movement links fighting for peace to fighting sports. In the Night of Peace just mentioned Jan Pronk passed over his task as peace fighter to a new generation in a boxing ring, which was the central stage of the evening. Moreover, the Dutch peace organisation “People Building Peace” appointed a kickboxing promoter as its “peace ambassador”.
Here I do not want to talk about boxing and kickboxing as such. However, my problem of linking peace to these sports is this. The purpose of boxing and kickboxing is to beat your opponent by hitting and hurting him and if possible to knock him down. Your opponent has the right to do the same with you in order to win. In other words, it is a mini-war. What has this all to do with peace? Another website where I also found the video says that the peace movement is looking for people that can build bridges, and that is what in fact peace is: building bridges in order to bring people together. However, what this video suggests is that peace activists must be persons prepared to knock down (at least mentally) people that do not agree with his concept of peace and peace proposals. A peace maker, so it implies, is a person who wins by beating the person who does not agree. But what then is the difference between bringing peace and fighting a war, even if it is a war for a just cause (whatever that may be)? But peace is not a situation where someone who thinks that he is right can take this right at the cost of the opponent. Peace is a situation where people try to come to common solutions, not by fighting but by a process of negotiating where both parties give and take. And a peace activist has to be a mediator in this process. How far has a peace organisation gone from reality if it does not see that suggesting a relation with boxing and kickboxing undermines this idea.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The development of man and the capacity to act

A few days ago it was in the news that a new ancestor of man has been found, which has been baptized Ardipithecus ramidus. Actually she has been found already in 1994 (in Ethiopia), but it takes always time to analyze and interpret a new find. This Ardipithecus ramidus lived about one million years before our famous ancestor “Lucy”, so about 4.4 million years ago, and she had physical traits that were already typically human rather than apelike. What for philosophers is more interesting, of course, is not which physical capacities this ancestor had but her mental capacities. Could she think as we do? Of course not, but had her thinking already something typical human? And could she act? Surely, she could behave but could she develop already some typical human intentions? In my blog last week I proposed the idea that the difference between behaviour and action is a sliding scale. From that point of view it is likely that the doings of the Ardipithecus ramidus were not merely bodily movements but had already some actionlike traits.
A couple of million years later we see that man makes and uses stone tools. I do not remember when it was. Maybe Lucy already did, maybe it was a couple of hundreds of thousands or a million years later, but already very long ago man made intentionally stone tools. That this man did not simple pick up a stone and used it can be seen from the fact that he went already to places where the stones he needed were found and brought them from there to where he used the tools, a distance of often several kilometres. In short: these ancestors of ours planned what they did.
I think that it is reasonable to guess that man did not have intentions in our sense, so did not take actions in our sense, before she used a language. When did language develop? By chance I have just finished reading a book about the origin of language in man. It defends the theory that it must have been between 200.000 and 50.000 years ago, which is about between the appearance of homo sapiens (modern man) on earth and the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere in the world. Moreover, it is likely that the language capacities of man and with it the capacity to execute fully intentional actions developed gradually. In the first homo sapiens the capacity to act intentionally was less well developed than in his descendant that discovered agriculture some 15,000 till 10,000 years ago. Seen it this way, it is likely that these capacities still develop.

What does this mean for action theory? Behaviour and action can be placed on a sliding scale, as we have seen, and the scale can be used for classifying what we do as more actionlike or more like behaviour. In this way, the classification of behaviour and action is synchronic. However, in view of the development of man it must also be possible to classify behaviour and action diachronically: We compare the doings of present man with the doings of our ancestors by placing them somewhere on the sliding scale. By diachronically comparing actions and behaviour of man in this way, we can get insight in human development. Then it is not unlikely that we come to the conclusion that much which is now classified as an action has no equivalent in the past and must necessarily have been more like behaviour (and so necessarily less intentional). Conversely, this may also true for the doings of man in future.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The relativity of action

Definitions of what an action is are often absolute in the sense that they strictly separate actions from other kinds of doing: A doing is an action or it isn’t. My own definition of action in my dissertation is no exception. I called a doing guided by an intention an action; if it doesn’t have an intention, it is an instance of behaviour. Using intention as criterion for distinguishing action from non-action is quite common among action philosophers. However, other perspectives are possible. Jonathan Dancy distinguishes an action from a mere bodily movement when there is a reason behind what the agent does. Berent Enç distinguishes what one does in a deliberative way from what one does automatically. Deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do and determines the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions. However, in all these cases there is a clear distinction between two types of doing.
The dichotomy has been relativized somewhat by an idea put forward by G.E.M. Anscombe that says that actions can be described in different ways and that we have different actions depending upon the description chosen. This idea that has been developed by Donald Davidson. However, even then the dichotomy between action and non-action still remains.
This is different in Christine Korsgaard’s description of action in her recently published Self-Constitution (pp. 97-98). Korsgaard defines action as “an intentional movement … guided by a representation or conception … of [the] environment”. Also in this definition intention is substantial for making a movement an action. However, as Korsgaard explains, there is no “hard and fast line in nature between action and other forms of intentionally describable responses because there is not a hard and fast line in nature between mere reaction and perceptual representation”. There is a sliding scale between how plants react to their environment (non-action), how animals do and how man does when s/he acts. Also the doings of man are on a sliding scale from mere behaviour on the one end till action on the other end. In fact, Korsgaard had anticipated this explanation already in her definition for actually it runs: “Action is an intentional movement of an animal ... guided by a representation or conception that the animal forms of his environment”.

But if it is so that there is a sliding scale between action and mere behaviour and if this distinction is relative then it is also so that our responsibility for what we do must be on a sliding scale and be relative. Then our responsibility for what we do is rarely hundred percent or zero but in many cases it is somewhere in between. In fact this is often acknowledged, for example in trials. There it can happen that the perpetrator of a criminal act is declared to have been in a state of diminished responsibility for what s/he did, which means that the act had not been fully deliberate but that the perpetrator had been partially guided by bodily urges that s/he had not under control. However, as Korsgaard adds, “[t]here are many cases in which we need a hard and fast concept for the purposes of philosophical understanding and indeed for ethical and political life...”. But does it really contribute to our understanding and our ethical and political life if a distinction is based on a distorted view of the world?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Being praised for what you do

Some time ago I wrote about the side effects of actions and how we evaluate them. Side effects of actions are one of those intriguing issues of the philosophy of action: We can say a lot about them, but it is difficult to reach a definite conclusion. One problem is, as I discussed: Are we (or to what extent are we) the doers of these side effects if we could not foresee them when we acted? Are we then responsible for them or are we not, or are we partially responsible? And how about the side effects that we did foresee but that we had rather avoided? But maybe we thought: “Okay, this effect is less important than our actual action”. Or we just do not care. Of course, side effects can also be positive. One of the remarkable things is, as we have seen, that we are blamed for the negative side effects of our actions but not praised for the positive ones (see my blogs of February 23, 2009, and later).
Side effects of actions cannot be avoided. Moreover, even when we consider in advance thoroughly what we are going to do, we can foresee only a few consequences of our actions. And among those we do foresee there are often some that we do not desire to happen. The world is too complicated to be able to bring about only what we like. The only “solution” would be doing nothing, and even that is a doing from the point of view of many philosophers.
More than two years ago I started to write my philosophical blogs. Frankly speaking, I did not write them for the readers; I wrote them for myself. But what I had not thought about so much, but what I could have foreseen, of course, is that some people reacted. Even more, I got a group of readers. I do not want to say that it changed my blogs a lot, but in the end, when writing, you take attention to it that you are read and it influences what you are writing, despite that you still write for yourself. And so it happened to me, too.
I think that I can consider having a group of readers as a positive side effect of my writing my blogs, for my main purpose was stimulating my thinking and ordering my thoughts in a less formal way then when you write an article. Writing blogs is excellent for that, and I would have continued writing blogs, also when I would not be read and when I would never receive a reaction. What I did not expect, however, was being praised for my blogs. Hadn’t I written myself that people are blamed for negative side effects of what they do but that they are not praised for positive side effects? However, often it happens that theories are falsified and must be revised.
Now the theory that people are not praised for the positive side effects of what they do has been falsified by at least one instance, for the unexpected thing happened. My blog is not only read by other people, but I am even praised for it. A few days ago I received a message that my readers have submitted and voted for my blog at The Daily Reviewer with the consequence that my blog is in their top 100 philosophy blogs (see the reaction to my blog “What are we voting for?”, published two weeks ago). And I got even an award for it. Therefore, I want to thank from the depth of my heart all those readers who voted for me and brought me in the top 100 philosophy blogs! Thank you very much. It is very nice of all of you.
Of course, I want to try to continue writing blogs of the same quality. I’ll do my best for it, although I cannot promise anything. Sometimes it happened that I had written a blog and later I thought: no, it was not worth publishing it. The only excuse that I have for it is that I definitely want to publish a blog every Monday, unless I have an airtight excuse for not doing it. Then it can happen sometimes that inspiration fails. But now I have a second goal when writing my blogs: not only writing for myself but, as human as human is, trying to reach the top of the list of 100. Who knows, maybe I’ll succeed, maybe not. It is not only in my hands but also in the hands of my readers and maybe in other hands, too. But if I succeed, and if I reach the top, one thing is sure: I can no longer say that it is a side effect of my action of writing blogs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Every citizen a criminal

The European Union has decided that finger prints have to be taken of every person who wants to have a passport for travelling abroad, a measure that will also be executed by the Netherlands. The reason seems to be that in this way it becomes easier to attack crime. But is it really effective? I doubt it and my opinion has been reinforced by a recent Dutch report that says that placing surveillance cameras in public areas is not very effective, with a few exceptions, like placing them in public garages. And for me there is no fundamental difference between placing cameras in public places, taking finger prints when you want to have a passport, asking your DNA for the simple reason that you happen to live in an area where a murder has taken place, and so on. The essence of all these measures is: they make you a potential criminal while there is not any suspicion on you for any crime. Even more, you are considered to be a potential perpetrator, even when there hasn’t taken place any crime at all. In short, it is Big Brother.Politicians talk about trust and that people must invest more in community relations in order to get a friendlier, less criminal society. But how can they expect that people trust each other, if these politicians do not trust us? And when they do not support programs that invest in personal relations on the community level themselves and in the civil society, but when they see in every citizen a criminal in the making?

Monday, September 14, 2009

What are we voting for?

Voting in democracies is supposed to be a procedure in which we show which candidate or party represents best our interest. But is that really so? Most people do not read all the programs that the parties have written and that the candidates stand for. They see the candidates in TV broadcasts and they read the political news in the newspapers. Maybe they go even to a political meeting or they happen to meet a candidate somewhere in their town or village during a campaign. In such a way voters seem to build up their opinions and to decide for whom to vote. Anyway, that is the theory. But is that really so? In fact, most people do not vote after a rational weighing of programs and standpoints, but they follow their personal traditions and feelings. It is not a bad strategy. Following your personal tradition, means that you follow where you have always stand for. And as for following your feelings, psychologists have found out that in complex situations it is almost impossible for man to make rational calculations what to do. Then following your feelings will often lead to an acceptable result. And from that point of view it is second best to a rational decision. But what does it mean following your feelings? One would expect that in case of voting it would be a kind of emotional tentative weighing of candidates and parties on ground of what they have done and said in the past and what they promise to do. In fact this kind of weighing appears to be of secondary importance. What comes first is not what a candidate said or says, promised or promises to do and really did or does. What is of primary importance is what he or she looks like. In one word it is his or her face. Whether the candidate looks competent not whether he or she is competent seems to be most important for being elected, even more important than whether a candidate is judged honest or charismatic. And then we do not yet speak of what this competence stands for; what it is about. However, a candidate that looks competent does not need to be competent. He or she can or cannot be competent despite the appearance. But in these days this is what candidates and their parties anticipate in the campaign to come. They make use of stylists and other people who work on how they look and not on what they are. Therefore it is actually so that we do not vote for the most competent candidate in the sense of the person that is most likely to represent our interests well, but we vote for the best stylists and other people who make up the appearance of the candidate. Actually it is what many people know but they follow their feelings and vote for the face.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Reading a book makes me quiet

Somewhere on a website on the Internet I have a photo of my study. What you see there is a room full of books. Since I have uploaded the photo there, I have received many reactions, all positive, for example: “I think this is my favourite room in the entire world”, “This is my dream”, “That's my goal!”, or “As close to paradise as one can get!”. I have “collected” these books already since a long time. Like those who have sent me their reactions, I like reading and I like having books around me. It is handy, when I am writing a blog, an article or occasionally a book, and what is more important, books make me feel at ease. All these books around me give me the right feeling, when I am there, working or doing something else.
But for me books are not a kind of wall paper that has to bring me in the right mood. Books have contents; they are about something. They say something and they are reflections of the minds of their authors, and often a lot more. That’s why I like reading them and want to have them around me. If that weren’t so, I guess that good photos and other decorations would do, too. Books have an intellectual function and because they are the reflections of other minds, they help me to develop my own mind. They give me an indirect way to talk with their authors and to talk with other authors who have read and who discuss the books that I have read. And they stimulate me to read other books.
However, books have also another function for me. When I come home after a tiring day, or when I have been working hard in my study (while writing myself), I can have a tense feeling. Some people go to bed then, but for me that doesn’t help. For me, other ways of coping with it are better. One way is doing physical activity. It certainly helps. But what also helps always for me is taking a book, and then rather not an easy one, but something like philosophy, for example, about a difficult theme which asks for concentration. The only thing that is necessary that it can distract me from what I did before I took the book in my hands. And then I become gradually relaxed again and forget what I did before. Therefore, it is something I always do and I can count the days that I did not read at least some pages in a book. For reading a book is relaxing for me and it makes me quiet.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Shadows passing by

Sometimes a photo can say more than books full of philosophical theories or a whole library of novels. It is true, philosophical books and literary works can tell a lot about the exact circumstances man or an individual person lives in and they can give extensive analyses. Besides that, they can describe or discuss details in a way photos cannot do. But isn’t it so that a photo can summarize a feeling, an idea in a way that words can never do? Take this photo here. Doesn’t it say a lot about the society we live in, in a way that anything written can never express? That in the end we are individuals while other human beings are passing by like shadows, maybe with the exception of a single person who is near to us? On the other hand, a photo, also this one, can lead to many interpretations and nobody knows which one is the right one.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The garden of Linnaeus

In a certain sense the world around us has an objective existence. I mean, the world as such is there and would exist as it is, even if we human beings would not be a part of it and would not exist at all. Plants and animals would live, procreate themselves and die as they do now without us being there. Animal species would come and go. Mountains would rise and disappear. Volcanoes would still throw ashes in the air. Rivers would fill the seas and the water would come back on the land as rain.
On the other hand, for us human beings the world around us cannot be objective in that sense. We cannot see the world as such but we must see what we see always as something special. We divide what we see in animals and things. Animals are birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, fishes. Mammals are dogs, cats, lions and elephants. And so on. That we classify the world around us is not only so for animals but for everything we see around us. It is true that sometimes our distinctions are vague, maybe confusing, and it also happens that later we find it better to change them. Then also our world changes. Sometimes a bit, sometimes a lot. Perhaps it was a small change that mammals appeared not to be fishes but mammals. A big change was that the earth appeared not to be the centre of the world but a planet that circles around the sun instead of the other way around. Because for us the world around us is never as such but always in a certain way, namely the way we have classified it, the world is subjective for us. And because it is we, human beings, who classify the world, the world is in this sense a man made construction.
One person who has much contributed to our world view and has made a construction of the living world is Carolus Linnaeus. It is also he who “moved” whales from the realm of fishes to the realm of mammals. After 250 years his classification is still in use, although it has been improved here and there. Especially Linnaeus’ classification of plants is well-known and if we talk about Linnaeus it is the first thing that comes into our thoughts. Is it not wonderful then to walk in the Linnéträdgården, the “Garden of Linnaeus” in Uppsala in Sweden, where he worked and studied plants, because it is a place where has been worked on the construction of our world?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Practical nonviolence

Nonviolence can be supported for many reasons. Some people mention religious reasons for it, other people support it on other spiritual grounds. Again other people have more down to earth arguments and see it as a mere ethical principle. I belong to this group. However, I think that for most people nonviolence has no relation with idealistic motives. They hate to hurt and being hurt, not to speak of killing. They hate the material destruction caused by violence. They see that violence breeds violence. And it happens also case that organisers of social movements who are basically prepared to use violence see that they can attract more supporters for their cause if they stay nonviolent. In other words, a nonviolent attitude can also be practical.The practical attitude to nonviolence is by far the one most found. Many people support (and will support) nonviolence for practical reasons only and not because they believe in the idea of nonviolence as such. People who support nonviolence on religious, spiritual or ethical grounds sometimes say: this is not real nonviolence. A nonviolent attitude must according to them be idealistic in some way. But is it really important why people are nonviolent? As for this, I am a realist: for me nonviolence is also nonviolence if it is not principled, as long you behave in this way.

Monday, August 10, 2009


“If an image is too beautiful to be true, they think that it is likely that it has been constructed” (Carel De Keyser, Belgian photographer).
Making photos is very popular today. With a digital camera it has become very simple to make them, to print them, to upload them to your computer and to change them. Everybody can “photoshop” a picture and many people do in order to make them better. Because photoshopping with a computer is a modern invention, many people think that an image that is beautiful today cannot be beautiful as such but that it has been made beautiful. A beautiful image has been constructed, they think, which has the connotation that because it has been constructed there is something wrong with it. It cannot be beautiful any longer.
What many people do not realize is that constructing photos has been done as long as photography exists. The difference with photoshopping is, however, that in the days that digital photography did not yet exist, changing and adapting photos was a complicated and often time consuming process that had to be done in a darkroom. It required much experience to do it that way that it couldn’t be seen that the photo had been changed. Often, nobody cared about changing photos, sometimes it lead to passionate discussions. Was the famous photo of Robert Cappa of a dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War a construction or was it real? And who doesn’t know the photo of Lenin making a speech with Trotsky on his side, where Trotsky has been removed in a later version? As for photoshopping, there is nothing new under the sun.
Even more, constructing pictures is of all ages. Some time ago I visited the Mauritshuis Art Museum in The Hague, which is well-known for its collection of Dutch Masters. There was an exposition of city views painted by Dutch Masters with an extensive explanation about each painting. And there they told how most paintings had been “photoshopped”, to use a modern word! The city views were not exactly real, but trees had been added or removed, buildings had been put on other places around a square, and many other “tricks” of that kind had been applied in order to make the painting looking better. But who cares? Isn’t it so that these paintings are judged because the way they have been painted and because of their artistic quality and not because they do not represent a real situation, even when they represent city views? And why should it be different for photos, “even” if they have been photoshopped?

And besides that, does it make the painting worthless that Rembrandt has photoshopped himself on the “Night Watch”?

Monday, August 03, 2009

On travelling (5)

Sometimes a holiday is full of experiences. You travel from one place to another, see a lot of monuments, museums and other interesting things and places, and actually when you are back home you need another holiday to come to rest. In other holidays nothing happens, by way of speaking. It is true, you are travelling around from hotel to hotel or from camping site to camping site, but in fact that is all you do. Or maybe it isn’t. You look around while moving in your car, you enjoy the landscapes and you see new geographical surroundings and you meet new people. Maybe there is a museum or a place of historical interest you visit here and there but on most days you do nothing else than moving around. There are no sites you have to visit. You visit the places you visit simply because they are there, and just that is what makes your travelling interesting. In other words, your travel is relaxed. And aren’t actually these travels your best travels?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Free will and a cup of coffee

Recently, Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh showed that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. In another experiment it came out that people who held a cold pad in their hands were more selfish than people holding a warm pad. If these results can be substantiated in other experiments, then the conclusion must be that our physical environment has an important influence upon what we want and wish. But if the temperature of a cup of coffee can influence what we do, what does remain then of the free will? Maybe it is that we must first decide whether we want to have our coffee hot or cold before we take a decision, but not while drinking another cup of coffee.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“By accident” and “by mistake”

In his “A plea for excuses”, J.L. Austin makes a distinction between “by accident" and “by mistake”. However, he does not elaborate this distinction and the only clear difference between mistake and accident that he makes in this article is this: “In an accident something befalls: by mistake you take the wrong one [i.e. wrong decision-btw]”. Nonetheless, it can also happen that a mistake results in an accident. J.A.C. Coady expresses the distinction by saying that a mistake is something that happens in your thought process or perceptions, while an accident happens because something went wrong in the outside world.
At first sight this distinction seems to be clear. However, if we dig deeper, “mistake” and “accident” appear to be more like shades of the same: some cases are clear mistakes and some cases are clear accidents and there is much in between. Actually this is expressed by Austin himself, when he writes: “If a mistake results in an accident, it will not do to ask whether ‘it’ was an accident or a mistake, or to demand some briefer description of ‘it’ ”. But why not? If a traffic accident is clearly the consequence of a miscalculation of one of the drivers, and we should see it only as an accident, why then ask the question of responsibility?
A building collapses by a miscalculation of the architect. Why do we call it an accident? Shouldn’t we call it a mistake? In a certain sense it is both.
I saw something black in the reed: “Look, a moorhen”. But when it came out I said: “I made a mistake, it is a coot”. Do we call it only a mistake and not an accident, because it does not have serious consequences?
I shoot at the bull’s eye and I miss. Is it an accident or a mistake? And makes the answer any difference, whether I am a beginner or a professional bowman?
By mistake, for example a slip of the tongue, I gave the wrong answer in the quiz, for I thought that I knew better, and I won the first prize. Is it an accident or is it a mistake that I won the first prize and I shouldn’t I have received it?

The upshot is that sometimes the distinction looks clear, and in his article Austin treats the mistake-accident distinction mainly like that. But often things aren’t that way, with all the consequences for the question of responsibility.

Monday, July 06, 2009

“If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine”

Guy Chapman told somewhere in his memoir of the First World War about an officer who looked at the enemy and then said to the sergeant next to him: “I surrender”. The sergeant took his rifle and shot the officer straight through his head. Another soldier who saw it asked Chapman what to do. He answered: “What can you do? If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine”.
This story tells much about what people can become and then do in extreme circumstances, when they have been brought there by other people. But are the scene and the end of it not an extreme reflection of what on a “lower level” happens in daily life? Through the years we learn a lot from other people, our parents, our teachers, the people around us, about how to behave. These are rather basic things like keeping right on a road, that it is not allowed to steal and what other rules we have to follow, what tastes we have, and so on. But what we learn can also be on the level of prejudices. Some men do not like people with a certain religion, people from a certain neighbourhood, people who are black, people who are white, people who are gay, people who are from a certain country, and so on. All these things are considered “normal” in a certain sense. Our habits are difficult to change, once we have interiorized them. When I am in a country where the traffic keeps left, in the beginning it is almost impossible for me not to look to the left instead of first to the right, when I cross a street. It is an automatism. And when I drive on the left, I feel unhappy. So it is also with many of our prejudices. Once we have them, it is difficult to change them, even when we are aware that they are prejudices and when we want to get rid of them. We cannot change our beliefs at will. Seen that way, what Chapman describes is only an extreme case of what happens in daily life, indeed. Nonetheless, this is no excuse. For although it is true that we cannot turn ourselves or other people off like machines, the quotation implies also that we are no machines. It is so that we cannot learn from one moment to the next to keep to the left, once we have been taught to keep to the right. However, it is a fact that we can learn it and after a shorter or longer time we can behave as if the new situation is normal to us. And it is the same for all the other things we do. We can change our habits and beliefs, even though it can be a long process. Therefore, it can be no excuse that we are what we have become and that’s it. Although we cannot turn other people or ourselves off like a machine, they and we can change. And that’s why Chapman was right and not right at the same time.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Supporting civic nonviolent movements

Recent studies have shown that civic nonviolent movements are by far more effective in bringing democratic changes in autocratically and dictatorially governed countries than movements that use violence do. Nonviolent movements are not only more effective than movements that use violence, but they bring also bigger democratic changes than more or less violent movements do. In spite of this, politicians in democratic countries that want to support democratic changes in not democratically governed countries ignore these facts and they are hardly prepared to support civic nonviolent movements otherwise than with words. They see nonviolence as “soft”. But as Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman put it “Given the significance of the civic factor in dozens of recent transitions from dictatorship, it is surprising how small a proportion of international donor assistance is targeted to this sector” (in “How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy”, The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, vol. 7-3 (June 2005) ). For what is soft about supporting what is successful at the cost of supporting what is less successful? To give only one example, rather than bombing Serbia the NATO had had to support Otpor, the nonviolent movement that brought Milošević down.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What's wrong with science?

Weinberg, Nichols & Stich have shown in an article that epistemic intuitions are not as objective as they once were supposed to be. Epistemic intuitions are not universal but differ according to culture and even within a culture according to the social group. Experiments show that conclusions may be different when they have been drawn by people with different backgrounds. Now it is so that most scientific activity is done by people belonging to the highest SES group (SES=social economic status), and till not so long ago all scientists were mainly men in the highest SES groups in western countries. This would not be a problem if science would lead to objective, universally valid conclusions, but it seems to be worrying that it has come out now that many scientific conclusions are not as universal as they were supposed to be. Actually, science is no more than a view on the world by people belonging to a certain cultural group. As the authors formulate it, “if we are right about epistemic intuitions, then ... [it] would entail that the epistemic norms for the rich are quite different from the epistemic norms appropriate for the poor... And that we take to be quite a preposterous result” (in: Joshua Knobe & Shaun Nichols (eds.), Experimental philosophy, Oxford etc.: OUP, 2008; p. 35).
But is it really so preposterous and worrying? Maybe it is naive to think that it would be different. Besides that many people have always said so (but most scientists and scholars did not listen to them, certainly not those who belonged and belong to the “main stream”), actually it is rather human that the result found by Weinberg is right. Probably it would be preposterous and worrying if it would not be the case. For science is as human as any other affair that people do, and also the intuitions involved in science are as human as human can be. There is no reason to suppose that intuitions that look to be universal are fundamental exceptions. Science is founded on norms, albeit scientific norms, and as norms they can have no objective value and they can have different interpretations for different people, with the result that it is basically a local affaire (local in the sense of limited to a culture, SES group, or the like). But is this a threat to science? I think it is not. That scientific conclusions are different for different groups simply shows that they are intersubjective at most. Science is, as Karl-Otto Apel has shown already 30 years ago, not a matter of developing a theory that explains a fact or phenomenon as such. Science explains always for a certain subject of knowledge, and if its results are different depending on the different cultural, SES or other background of the explaining person or persons, one must not be surprised. If one would, it would mean that one does not give the “explains for a certain subject of knowledge” any sense. Even when one accepts this relativity of science, it still describes the facts and explains them in a certain way. But is it not what science has always done?

Monday, June 15, 2009


Actually I wanted to write here about Arcadia, where I have been a few weeks ago. Arcadia symbolizes the simple, happy life without sorrows. A world where one does not need to think about the future because the future will be happy, too. A world of shepherds and shepherdesses who find all the needs for life, all food and shelter, around them in a beautiful landscape. A world without sufferance and without suppression. You find this world especially depicted in pieces of art in the 17th and 18th centuries.
With these thoughts in my mind I passed the border of Arcadia on the Peloponnesos in Greece. However, what is the reality of Arcadia? It was a bit a disappointment, for I did not see shepherds and shepherdesses; I did not see even any sheep at all. In fact, the region was not fundamentally different from the others region on the Peloponnesos. I did not have the idea to be in paradise, although the landscape was beautiful, indeed.
But maybe Arcadia is something only in our mind. In the end we all want a better world and Arcadia is a symbol of such a world. It is another word for paradise, but then a bit more worldly. People have to work there, it is true, for being shepherds (or whatever that may be) they have a profession. People in Arcadia may have a ruler, a king. But ruling Arcadia is in fact a simple affair, a bit like Marx’s communist state. The conflicts of interest have been replaced by a simple kind of administration in the sense that it is a managing of practical relatively uncomplicated affairs. And what is essential, there is no discrimination and no exclusion.
Of course, I do not think that somewhere in the world such an Arcadia exists or could exist, but what I might expect is that people try in some way to build up a kind of Arcadia in the sense of a society where some of its minimal requirements have been fulfilled. Then we see Arcadia as a striving for a better world. However, after the recent elections for the parliament of the European Union, the Prime Minister of my country felt the need to say: My party will not cooperate with a party that excludes people. I think that this simple statement says a lot about the world we live in. It shows that exclusion happens but also that it is not something individual. It is not in the sense of “I do not like him or her” or “I do not like them”. It has an organisational base, for you find it back in what a certain political party stands for. It is a kind of “We do not like them”. Even more, the leader of the party that the Prime Minister was pointing to has said what kind of people he means with “them”: Muslims. This shows that we are not only far away from Arcadia, but that people do not want Arcadia. Or rather, they want it on their own conditions, which makes Arcadia implicitly impossible.

Once a got a letter from a new pen friend in an African country south of the Sahara. She wrote that she is a Muslim, but she added: “Nous ne sommes pas comme ça” (“We are not like that”), meaning that the Muslims in her country are not fanatic propagators of their religion, but that they simply want to practice their religion, without conflicts, in all peace, allowing other people to practice their own religions. Like the statement of the Prime Minister of my country, also the sentence “We are not like that” says a lot, for it implies: Do not put everything in one box; behind the same name you find big differences, and the Islam has many nuances. The remark of my new pen friend was not directed at me, however, for we had not yet talked about religion. But she knew how many people in the West think about the Islam, and she wanted to say beforehand that the word Islam covers a wide world of different ideas and interpretations. It is true, I think, but what I am afraid that those who want to exclude Muslims because of their religion apparently do not want to see this and to believe this. But isn’t it still so that we have to judge people because of what they do as an individual and not because of what they are or are supposed to be, so for the simple reason that they belong to a certain category? The opposite is the foundation of all exclusion and discrimination and the negation of Arcadia. And that’s what I actually wrote about.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A visit to Nestor

When Telemachos arrived in Pylos, he was, as Homeros told us, warmly welcomed by Nestor, the king of the region and a companion-in-arms of his father Odysseus, when the Greek tried to conquer Troja. He took part in the sacrificial ceremony that was just taking place on the beach, was then led to the palace and was received there as an honoured guest. Not many years thereafter, but probably after the death of Nestor, the palace was destroyed and the place where it was had been forgotten, until it had been found back again in the 20th century. Now people are walking around there, looking curiously how a king lived more than 3000 years ago, seeing that the palace was exactly as described by Homeros, and thinking about how the son of Odysseus had been walking around there. The walls of the palace have gone but the ground plan is still very well visible.
I enter the building and after a few rooms I arrive in the throne room. The place of the throne is still easily to indicate. Another room appears to have been a bath room. The bath tub is still there. Is it here that Polykaste, the daughter of Neros, has bathed Telemachos?I am feeling the centuries that had passed, and also not yet...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On waiting

Sometimes I take photos that show aspects of our daily life. One such an aspect is waiting. Waiting is something that everybody has to do now and then, and it is an “activity” that many people do not like, especially not in our modern society where everything must be efficient and where waiting time is seen as lost time. However, waiting is not simply doing nothing, being inactive. Waiting has a purpose. It is doing nothing in view of something else, and seen in this way it is a kind of activity, an inactive being active. We can express it also this way: waiting is waiting for, it is awaiting, and in this sense it is expecting.
A good example of waiting is, I think, waiting for a ferry. We arrive at the place where the ferry leaves, and we wait until it has arrived from the other side of the river or sea, and until the time has come that we are allowed to go on the boat. If we like, we can fill the time by eating, reading or who knows what, and many people do. A telephonist of an organisation who does not get many calls often gets administrative tasks to do for filling the time of waiting till the next call comes.
However, once I made a photo of a waiting scene and I realized that this waiting was different. The waiting scene grasped by the picture was actually not a waiting for, an awaiting, so it seemed to me, but the waiting in the picture had a purpose of its own. The picture showed a scene of groups of men and women in front of a church waiting until the service would have ended and the procession would leave the building (see photo). These men and women did not enter the church for taking part in the service. When I was looking at the photo, I suddenly realized why they didn’t, although it would have been quite well possible that they would enter and although some other people that arrived meanwhile did. For what these people really did was not waiting for the procession, (although they joined it when it left the church). In fact their waiting was a kind of social gathering. Talking with the other men or women in front of the church was apparently more important than the procession they were waiting for. Some people even arrived rather early. Why? Probably in order to wait longer! That is, in order to have more time to talk with the other men or women present. Waiting (so talking with the other men) was the purpose of going there, not being in time for the procession. And then the procession left the church and the waiting people joined. The social gathering had entered a new phase.

Waiting is something that everybody has to do now and then and usually we do not like it. If so, we often look for activities to fill up the waiting time and making it more useful. However, not all waiting is the same and sometimes the filling of the waiting is the waiting itself. Then it can be so that we look forward for it and that we wait for it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Good and bad actions (3)

In the example in my last blog I saved a person who had felt into a canal. What I did not know then was that this person had the intention to perform a bomb attack, which he really did later. I wondered how we had to judge my action in view of what the saved person did later and that I did not know about his plans.
But let me go one step further. Suppose that I had known about the intention of the person that I saved. So, when I saved him, I knew that the man in the water had the intention to perform a bomb attack. Makes this any difference for the judgement of my action (supposing that the person saved really did perform his intended action later)? In view of the supposition that was the starting point of my discussion that saving a man’s life is intrinsically good, can we still say then that saving this man’s life was intrinsically good?
I can make my example more complex. I can vary it this way, for instance, that the person saved had the intention indicated but then did not execute this intention, for example because he was stopped or because he changed his mind. Do these variations (and there are certainly more) make any difference for the way we judge the action of saving a man’s life?
We can infer several things from such a discussion. Or rather, infer is not the right word, for I do not think that we can say: “This is true. We must say that some actions can be intrinsically good or bad”. But what we can infer is that what is true at first sight can be more complicated at second sight, for things may have different interpretations from different perspectives. Actually everybody knows this and actually is a platitude. But in practice it happens so often that people say: “This is absolutely true and it is stupid not to see it”, and they behave that way, they abuse other people who have different ideas, they kill people or wage war in the name of their eternal and absolute truths, or whatever they do in the name of the absolutly right. Or they say “What stupid things do you say”, and they react in the way just said, not seeing the complexities behind a seemingly stupid remark.

One question raised by my last blogs is this one: Can we call an action (intrinsically) good before we perform it (on really good and well-founded grounds), while looking backwards we would call it bad, or at least would tend to call it bad? Take again the case of the saving a future bomb attacker. Can we say then that it was intrinsically good what I did at the moment that I saved his life, but that it was a bad action at the moment I look at it after the bomb attacker has thrown his bomb? And what do we mean then by saying that this action was good or bad? Can the words “good” and “bad” have different meanings when we label an action before it took place and after it has taken place? In other words, things are not always as they look like, even if they look like what they are.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Good and bad actions (2)

An action need not to be intrinsically good or bad. It can also be neutral. Moreover, an action can be good from one aspect and bad from another aspects. Such actions are not intrinsically good or bad.
However, I think that it is possible that in the abstract all aspects of an action are good and if we consider it outside its context we would say that it is good under any aspect. Saving a person’s life is such an action, I think. We tend to call such an action intrinsically good.

But how is it if we take a real action? Let us say that we had the intention to save a person’s life and we succeeded. The person had fell into a canal. He could not swim and he would certainly have been drowned, if I hadn’t saved him. This action of mine looks intrinsically good. But what if the person had the intention to perform a bomb attack, which I did not know, and because he has been saved by me, he could and did perform this act, with the consequence that many innocent people have been killed. Was my action of saving the future bomb attacker then still (intrinsically) good?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good actions and bad actions

Can an action be good or bad as such or are there no intrinsically good and bad actions? And if we want to judge an action, do we have to judge it because of the intention of the action or because of the results?
Let us say that someone wants to do an action that has an intrinsically good intention, like saving a person. However, the action failed and the person was not saved. Must we call this action then good or bad?This shows that the goodness of an action has at least two aspects: intentional goodness and technical goodness (or the way it is performed). And maybe there are more. But if all aspects are positive (‘good’), does that imply that the action is intrinsically good?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

On travelling (4)

Sometimes I think: it should be possible to skip the phase of going to travel. Sometimes I think: it should be possible to skip the phase of returning to daily life. Travelling as a way of existing. Or is it so that just the preparation and the return are intrinsic parts of travelling making travelling what it is?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

No responsibility for what one did?

President Obama of the USA decided that the torturers of Guantanamo would not be prosecuted for their acts, because they were ordered to do what they did. According to him not they but his predecessor, so former president Bush, was responsible for the torture. But is that really so? I mean, of course, president Bush was responsible for it, but does this imply that the torturers do not have a responsibility of their own for which they can be called to account, and for which they need to be called to account in case of a criminal act like torture?
The case makes me think of a famous study by Stanley Milgram, which I also mentioned in my blog of August 11, 2008, titled “No news”. As Milgram has shown in his famous study Obedience to Authority some people tend to think: “If this person with authority tells me that I can do it, it must be okay”, and then they simply execute what they are ordered to do, even when they know or could have known that what they do is not good, cruel or illegal, and should be despised, and even when they have the opportunity to say “No, I do not do it; I refuse to do it”.

In normal life it is accepted that subordinates follow the orders of the persons above them and then it is so that they above are held responsible for the acts of their subordinates. However, there is a limit and that is when these acts are illegal if not criminal. Then the subordinates have to say “No, I don’t do that”, even if they risk to lose their jobs. Obedience to authority is no excuse. There are even armies that go that far that orders must be refused if these orders require to do criminal or illegal acts. And why should there be an exception for the torturers of Guantanamo? Isn’t it so that in the end every person is responsible for his or her own acts? What would the world become if we would allow that obedience to authority is accepted as an excuse under any circumstance? That would lead to legalized criminality in the end. Only when one accepts that there are limits to obedience to authority, that these limits are there where criminality and illegality begins, and that each person is responsible for his or her own actions anyway, it is fundamentally possible to remove criminal and despicable acts like torture from the world. If we would accept that the executors of criminal acts can hide themselves behind the fact that they have no responsibility for the orders they take and that they simply have to execute them, whatever that order is, how can we expect then that these criminal and despicable acts can be and will be removed from the world?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The measurability of responsibility

The idea that there is a gliding scale of responsibility supposes implicitly that it is clear how to ascribe responsibility and in what degree. Remember that we are still talking about responsibility for the side effects of an action or, as in my last blog, about my responsibility for what another person did in reaction to an action of mine. Now, if it would be the case that someone acted and there is a clear idea of responsibility in the sense mentioned, then it would be fundamentally possible to know after a thorough research whether an agent was responsible for an action and how much, maybe even as exactly as for say 20, 37 or 69 per cent. However, when we look in the philosophical literature the actual view is far from that. Or look around yourself and you’ll see that people disagree in their judgments about the degree of responsibility of an agent for his or her acts, a fact that has been confirmed by recent research. When we compare people in different cultures, the differences in judgment will certainly be bigger. The upshot is that responsibility exists and that we can say a lot about it but in practice we are far from being able to give it a clear interpretation.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Responsibility for what one doesn’t do

In my blog last week I concluded that I cannot be held for responsible for a consequence of an action of mine if this consequence was an action done by another person, say A. The example was a thief that dropped my vase when he noticed that I came home, while I did not know that there was a thief in my house. In this case it is clear that I am not responsible. But does this mean that I am never responsible for what another person does? I think that we cannot give a general answer to this question but at least we can distinguish several cases:
a) I hadn’t foreseen the action by A and I couldn’t have foreseen it.
b) I hadn’t foreseen the action by A but reasonably I should have foreseen it.
c) I had foreseen the action by A, but A acted on his or her own initiative.
d) I had asked, ordered, forced …. A to do the action.
I shall not give examples and discuss this in detail, but I think that we can say that responsibility is a position on a gliding scale. a-d indicate a few positions on this scale from not responsible at all to very responsible. These positions can be further refined (especially d); intermediate positions can be added.
The upshot of all this is, and in fact we knew this already from daily life, that one can even be responsible for what one hasn’t done in person.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Responsibility and how we describe what we do (2)

Let us take another time Davidson’s example in my last week’s blog, which I have extended a bit: I come home, I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I alert also a thief in my house to the fact that I am home. However, the thief hadn’t expected me to come home yet, was scared stiff, and unintentionally dropped the vase that he had in his hands. Now we can describe what I did at least in these ways:
- I illuminated the room.
- I alerted the thief.
But can we describe what I did as that I made that the thief dropped the vase? I think this is a difficult question. However, I tend to say “no”. Why not? Because it was the thief that dropped the vase. It was not I who did it. The thief could have done many things: putting the vase back on the table and taking his gun; or fleeing with the vase through the backdoor; or walking to me and saying that he was a policeman and that he had seen a thief indoors and that he had saved the vase; or who knows what. It was up to the thief what would happen, intentionally or unintentionally (or a combination of both: dropping the vase because he was scared and fleeing through the backdoor, for instance). This is different from what is described in the two other descriptions. In the first case it is clear that it was I who illuminated the room. Who else? I flip the switch already as long as I live in this house and always the room becomes illuminated then.
Also in the second case I think that the description is unproblematic. If the thief hadn’t noticed that the room became illuminated, he wouldn’t have been alerted, but the fact is that he did and normally it is so that a thief becomes alerted in such a situation. It was a direct consequence of an action that was done by me.

The case of me making that the thief dropped the vase is a bit like the soldier’s fighting in the First World War that contributed to the development of plastic surgery (see last week). If the soldier (and no other soldier) had not fought then this development would have been much slower, but actually he had no influence on it. There we concluded that the soldier was not responsible for the faster development of plastic surgery, because we could not redescribe his actions in the war that way. This is also true for the fact that the thief dropped my vase. How about the two other cases? Following the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I want to distinguish at least two different senses of moral responsibility: responsibility in the accountability sense and in the attributability sense. In the second sense an agent is responsible for an action if it can be attributed to him or her in the sense that he or she did it without having explicitly the intention to do it. If the latter is the case, we can hold the agent responsible or accountable for the action and then we talk of responsibility in the accountability sense. Now we can say, I think, that I am responsible in the accountability sense for having illuminated the room and responsible in the attributability sense for having alerted the thief. So in the case that what we have done is a side effect of what we intended to do our responsibility is a responsibility in the attributability sense. But in the case of making that the thief dropped the vase I am not responsible at all, because the fact that the thief dropped the vase was not something that I did. Maybe it was a consequence of what I did but then one done be someone else, in reaction to what I did, just as in my last week’s blog.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Responsibility and how we describe what we do

In my recent blogs I made a distinction between an action as intended and the side effects of an action, as is done by many philosophers. Often we talk also of the unintended consequences of an action, when we mean its side effects, which is usually distinguished from the intended consequences of this action. That unintended consequences of actions can be seen as side effects does not need to make them less important than the intended main effects. For instance, a side effect of an industry can be that it causes serious damage to the environment and this can be a reason to close down this industry.
Another way of making a distinction between the different effects of an action is talking of actions under different descriptions, an idea introduced by Elisabeth Anscombe. Instead of using the example used by Anscombe, I prefer to take one by Davidson, which I have slightly adapted (Donald Davidson, Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 4-5). Let us say, there is a thief in my house, and the thief knows that, when I come home, I’ll turn the light on and that he will be warned then. Now I come home, I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I alert also the thief to the fact that I am home. Now we can describe what I did, according to Davidson, in different ways. For example, we can describe what I did by saying that I illuminated the room.

However, we can also say that I alerted the thief, which is a side effect of the action described as illuminating the room.I think that it is right that in many cases we can say that describing an action in different ways is a way of taking account of its side effects and of making clear that an actor is responsible for the side effects in some way. However, not all side effects can be taken account of by redescribing what is done. Take for instance the example in my last blog: a side effect of the First World War was contributing to the development of plastic surgery. Or, in case one finds “First World War” too vague as a description of an action, one can say that the fighting of a soldier in this war contributed to the development of plastic surgery. Can we now say that one description of what the soldier did is fighting and another description is contributing to the development of plastic surgery? I think this is weird. What is then the difference with Davidson’s example? I think it is this. I think that one can defend (which I’ll not do her) that in a certain sense I am responsible for having alerted the thief, but that it is impossible to defend the thesis that the soldier (or “The First World War” whatever that may be) can be held responsible for having contributed to the development of plastic surgery. This contribution is a pure side effect by way of speaking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bad actions, good effects

Is a bad action less bad if it has positive side effects? Say, I am a pacifist and I am absolutely against war. So I judge war is bad. As a consequence, for me the First World War was bad. However, this war stimulated medical surgery very much, and especially it stimulated plastic surgery. Is my opinion that the First World War was bad then a reason for me to be against plastic surgery in any form and for any purpose, for example operating people whose faces have been injured in an accident? Or is it a reason to change my opinion and to say: In the end the First World War wasn’t so bad at all? Or even more: In the end wars are not so bad at all?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Responsibility and the levels of meaning

Once I made a distinction between meaning 1 and meaning 0. With the former I indicated the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character. It is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. With meaning 0 I indicated the meaning the people who make up social reality give to the social reality or to parts of it themselves. It is their interpretation of their own lived reality. If we take now my distinction between objective and subjective responsibility of my last week’s blog we can say that objective responsibility is responsibility in the sense of the meaning 1 of the concept of responsibility. Looked from a distance, from the viewpoint of a not involved scientist (not involved in what the responsibility is about), there seems to be no reason why the negative side effects of an action should be judged differently than the positive side effects. We can also say that from a third person’s point of view objective responsibility is responsibility on the level of meaning 1.
However, the reality as experienced by the participants is often different. Social reality is often not as simple as one would like to have it from a mathematical or mechanical point of view. Here I do not talk about why negative and positive side effects of intentional actions are judged differently. It is a fact that participants in social life do judge them differently. Their interpretations of the world around them take place in a way that is meaningful for them, consciously or unconsciously. That there are subjective interpretations of the world makes that there is also subjective responsibility, so responsibility in the sense of meaning 0. From a subjective point of view it needs not to be so that objectively the same kinds of effects lead to the same kinds of responsibility. Formulated in another way, from a first person’s point of view there is a subjective responsibility under the level of objective reality where the third person judges responsibility, i.e. on the level of meaning 0.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Objective and subjective responsibility

Given what I said in my last two blogs I think that we can distinguish two kinds of responsibility: objective and subjective responsibility. We do what we do, and we are the authors of what we do; not somebody else is. Therefore, in the end, only we are responsible that our actions have taken place. I want to call this kind of responsibility objective. However, that we are objectively responsible for our actions does not imply that we are also held responsible by other people for what we did. It is not necessarily so that we are made accountable or liable for the actions that were objectively our responsibility. Only when this is done, we are responsible in the subjective sense.
There are many reasons why we are not held subjectively responsible for what we did. One reason may be that our actions are simply ignored by other people. Another reason may be that everybody knows that we are the authors of certain actions but the idea of accountability or liability simply does not apply. What we did is just a normal action, like taking the train to Utrecht, and there is no reason to discuss it in terms of responsibility. Another reason that we are not made liable for what we did is that we were forced to do our action so that not we but the person who forced us to do what we did is made liable for our actions. And so there are other reasons for not being held responsible.In view of this distinction we can say now that we are objectively responsible both for the positive side effects and the negative side effects of our intentional actions, but we are subjectively responsible only for the latter.