Saturday, October 14, 2017

Spinoza's ass

After I had written my blog on Buridan’s ass, I discovered by chance that soon his important comments on Aristotle’s Physics, in which he discusses the case, will be reissued by the Dutch publishing house Brill (see link below). It’s remarkable, however, that Jean Buridan himself didn’t talk about an ass or donkey but that his case is about a dog:
“Suppose that a dog is very hungry and very thirsty. He is placed between a bowl with food and a bowl with water, which are at exactly the same distance left and right of him and everything else is also the same. Then the dog will die of hunger and thirst, for he will look to the one and to the other and has no reason to choose the one or the other. And since the dog cannot go to both sides at the same time, he will stay where he is and he will die of inertia.”
This example is a comment on Aristotle’s reasoning that the earth doesn’t move but is in balance among the celestial bodies, since the earth has no reason to move into one direction or another. But Buridan doesn’t agree with this reasoning at all! For he adds: “This reasoning [in the dog’s case] seems to be false and the same so for what people say about the earth.” (source: see below).
As we see, the contents Buridan’s example is basically the same as the example of the alleged “Buridan’s ass”, but it’s not about a hungry donkey but about a dog. Why then this donkey? Nobody knows who talked first about a donkey. Anyway, many philosophers have commented on the case of “Buridan’s ass”. One of them was Baruch Spinoza. I don’t know whether Spinoza thought that the example had been thought up by Buridan and whether he had read Buridan, but actually his comment is about the same as Buridan’s. Spinoza mentioned the example of “Buridan’s” ass twice in his works: In his Cogitata Metaphysica and in his Ethics. This is what he said about it in his Ethics:
“... I readily grant that a man placed in such a state of equilibrium (namely, where he feels nothing else but hunger and thirst and perceives nothing but such-and-such food and drink at equal distances from him) will die of hunger and thirst. If they ask me whether such a man is not to be reckoned an ass rather than a man, I reply that I do not know, just as I do not know how one should reckon a man who hangs himself, or how one should reckon babies, fools, and madmen.” (Ethics, Proposition 49)
In other words, Spinoza scoffed at “Buridan’s” ass, but didn’t also Buridan scoff at “his” dog, as we just have seen? Man is not an ass. That’s what Spinoza and Buridan agree about.

- Buridan’s text can be found on

Monday, October 09, 2017

Buridan's ass

Paradoxes have always fascinated me, not only since I have become interested in philosophy but already when I was a child. I remember that once I got a book titled To Measure Is to Know. Somewhere it discussed Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, which I treated already shortly in my blog dated 12 December 2016. I found the paradox very intriguing and I asked my mathematics teacher about it. He said that it was nonsense and that he had never heard about it. I was surprised and I still am, for how could a teacher that had studied at the university and taught at a Dutch gymnasium not have heard about it?
I also remember that even before I had read about Zeno’s paradox I came across the problem of Buridan’s ass. Here is a description of this paradox:
“A rational hungry donkey is placed between two equidistant and identical haystacks. The surrounding environments on both sides are also identical. The donkey cannot choose between the two haystacks and so dies of hunger, which is simply irrational.”
Actually, it’s not correct to name this paradox after the French philosopher Jean Buridan (1295-1363), for philosophers before him – including Aristotle – had already examined it, although often in another version. Also after Buridan, the paradox has been discussed again and again, for instance by Leibniz.
What would you do, if you were in the same situation as the ass? So, if you were in a situation that you inescapably had to choose between A and B without having criteria to choose between A and B? Will you do like the ass, so you’ll do nothing even if it leads to your destruction?
On the face of it it looks like a perfect case of free will: You can exactly do what you like, for there is nothing that forces you to perform one action or another; to choose the left hay stack or the right haystack or to abstain from choosing. Which choice you’ll make, it will be your choice, anyhow. However, I think that the case shows that free will cannot involve that you can make any choice you like. If there are no criteria you cannot choose, with the consequence that you’ll do nothing, and you’ll die like the ass between two haystacks. The case of Buridan’s ass illustrates that freedom is only possible within limits and these limits determine your criteria.
Happily, we are not asses. Even more, according to Michael Hauskeller also Buridan’s ass will survive, as he explains on . If you have no criteria, you’ll simply choose, with a reason (even if you don’t know it) or without a reason. Doesn’t this happen so often to us, for example in a restaurant? “Imagine”, so Hauskeller, “you go to a restaurant. Looking at the menu, you discover that they serve your two favourite meals – say asparagus and spinach tart. What will you do? You may hesitate for a while, but then you will make your choice. You have to make a choice, don’t you? Even if you’re hungry or greedy enough to order both, you have to decide which to eat first.” Has it ever happened to you that you don’t choose and that they chuck you out, because the restaurant closes and you have still to make your choice? Of course not. You ask your partner for advice; you wonder what you have eaten last week; you follow your gut feelings... And when the waiter comes to note down your choice, you say “I take the asparagus” or “I take the spinach tart”. And so it happens always in life. There is always a reason, even if there’s none. That’s the way we are constituted and be happy that we are.

Monday, October 02, 2017

All things have their season. Or don’t they?

My power machine (Tacx bike trainer and Batavus race bike)

I should write yet a bit about Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. However, I would deviate then too much from philosophy and the leading themes of these blogs: Who am I and what do I do? Even if I should interpret theses themes very broad, as I often do. So, I dropped the idea.
But who am I and what do I do? And how does this develop in the course of life? One doesn’t remain always the same. For most people it is so that – to say it shortly – first they grow and after having reached the summit decay sets gradually in and actually there is no return from that. True?
Once I was asked to write an essay on “graceful ageing” (and much of what follows now is from that essay). Then someone said to me “Becoming older is not for sissies. You fall apart physically and mentally and you get lots of wrinkles. I don’t see any grace in that.” Now I am the last to deny that becoming old is often difficult, but has it only negative aspects?
In this blog I want to talk about the physical side of ageing and indeed, when you grow older, often this side of life becomes problematical or even unbearable. For many people the defects of the body become so dominant that there seems to remain only decay. It cannot and must not be denied, but is it the only thing there is? One can say: such a decay is ungraceful, anyhow. But even then, in Orwellian words: All decay is ungraceful, but some decay is less ungraceful than other decay. Often we are left some elbow room. For some people it is wide, for others it is limited, but I think that just this elbow room is the space where ageing can be less unpleasant despite its difficulties.
Although I am a philosopher and a sociologist, being active with my body has always been important for me. I started to do sports when I was a student, and since then sport has stayed a significant part of what I do. I know that sooner or later I’ll be forced to give it up, for it seldom happens that people stay sporty till a high age. Only some keep practising it even then, as my readers know from my blogs on Robert Marchand, who even succeeded to set up a world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group that was especially created for him. But Marchand is exceptional in view of the human fate. Anyway, I hope that I can postpone the date that I have to stop cycling and running till late in life, for I think that sport has two aspects that help making life pleasant. It is enabling in the sense that it contributes to feeling better and fitter and in this way it makes that other activities can be done better. Moreover, doing sport till an advanced age is also a way of good living as such. Sport enhances the quality of life. But in the end there is only a way down in life, or so people think, and that was why I was asked to write an essay on how to go the way down gracefully, if possible. However, must I accept the decay as a natural process, and that’s all that can be done?
In a certain sense it is and by and large the physical decay is predictable, although there are big individual differences. When earlier this year a cycling club was established in my town, I had the courage at my age of 67 to join this club, even though it was only for cyclists with a race bike – which I have, though – and even though the other boys and girls are younger, if not much younger. Moreover, in a reckless mood, I joined the group of the fastest riders (for happily so many enthusiasts had joined the club that several groups of riders could be formed). Well, I should have known better, but with some effort I always succeeded to follow the shadows of my fellow riders, although when it goes hill up some see my back, for I have always been a good climber. All this is very nice, of course, and wouldn’t be worth to write a blog about, but last week I had a fitness test and although I knew that my physical condition was already very good for my age, the unexpected happened: the result was better than three years ago, despite the fact that I had become older and despite the fact that it is more or less a natural law at my age that people go physically down.
Somewhere in his Essays Montaigne writes that all things have their seasons, also good ones. He devoted even an essay to the theme. In other words, if you become older if not old, you must stop doing things that were normal when you were younger, even if you are still able to do them. It has no sense to learn a new language after a certain age; it has no sense to try to acquire new knowledge. “When will you be wise, if you are yet learning?”, to paraphrase a quote from the Greek philosopher Xenocrates (396-314 BC) cited by Montaigne. I think that he would say the same of me and others who do like me and continue doing physical exercise till a later age. But, I think that my case illustrates that Montaigne is wrong. Human decay cannot be stopped but it is not a straight line. Not all things have their seasons.  Profit by it. Even well on in years you can become better, for in many respects you are what you do, even if it doesn’t look the natural way. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

There are books that everybody knows, that everybody talks about, and that hardly nobody has read. Such a book is Capital by Karl Marx, or, as the full title is, Capital: Critique of Political Economy. This month it is 150 years ago that the book was published. To be exactly, it was on 24 September 1867 in Berlin. Since then it has been reprinted many times, till the day of today, Also two volumes have been added, which came out after Marx’s death and have been prepared by Friedrich Engels from notes left by Marx. Here, in my study, I have these three volumes in the original German version. I have bought the books on 22 November 1969, and, indeed, I haven’t read them. Or hardly, for I started to read volume 1, but about at page 250 I stopped. Why? I don’t remember, but maybe I found it too boring or the book was simply too thick. It didn’t have priority and as a student in sociology I had many other books to read, too. But I found Marx’s work as such interesting. That was not the problem and I have read many other works by him (and Engels) as well, which I read till the end, as I usually do when I buy a book.
Since I didn’t read most of the three volumes of Capital, I can’t write about it from first-hand knowledge, so I’ll keep silent about it. Anyway, for long it has been considered a revolutionary and also dangerous work that undermined the existing capitalist society. Much of Marx’s Capital relies on the work by the British capitalist economist David Ricardo (1772-1823), but Marx used Ricardo’s tools for a revolutionary interpretation of society. However, wasn’t it Marx himself who said “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”? (Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach) But Marx was more an interpreter than an organizer, although just his interpretations show how relevant theory can be for social change.
What was it that Marx wanted to have changed? Let’s look at the also famous Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels in 1848 in London. I have read this little book several times. Somewhere halfway we find a list of ten measures for the advancement of the position of the “proletariat”. Maybe these measures were revolutionary in Marx’s time, but now most of them have been realized, although some are still not acceptable.
Here are some measures proposed in the Manifesto. Measure 2 wants to introduce a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”. When Marx and Engels wrote this, no country had an income tax, but during the First World War (1914-1918) many European countries introduced such a tax and since then it is seen as just and correct. About 1980 in the Netherlands the highest tax bracket was as high as 72%! (now it is 52%, still a figure Marx wouldn’t have dreamed of) Measure 3 says “Abolition of all rights of inheritance”. In my country inheritance rights are undisputed, but inheritances in the second degree and further are heavily taxed. Measure 6 says “Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State” and nowadays we see a big influence of the state on both. A last example: Measure 10 wants “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.”. Also this demand has already been realized to a great extent if not fully in Europe and most countries elsewhere in the world (the abolition of child labour already in 1874 in the Netherlands).
More such measures have been proposed in other works by Marx and on meetings inspired by Marx’s ideas and ideas prevailing in the socialist movement of his days. Then they were revolutionary, now most people think that it is a shame if they haven’t been realized.
Al this happened under the influence of one of the most important books ever written: Capital by Karl Marx. But times change and ideas become practice or simply fade away because better or other ideas pop up. And that’s also why we can now put Capital in the library of history. However, this doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth being read any longer. Books that are no longer relevant in the current situation, still can be stimulating. Therefore I should yet have to read it, if it had enough priority for me (but, alas, it hasn’t). However, a book that has become history and has made history can have so much prestige that other authors decide to use its title. It’s what the French economist Thomas Piketty did. Almost 150 years after Marx’s critique on the capitalist society Piketty wrote another revolutionary though not dangerous book on the same theme and borrowed the title: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Will it be as influential?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Moral dilemmas in real life

Cases like the trolley problem are much discussed in philosophy. The idea behind studying cases is that it helps gain insight into complex problems, especially when experimentally testing can’t be done for practical or ethical reasons. So the trolley problem helps us gain insight into moral dilemmas. Instead of having professional philosophers discuss such cases, we can also put them to test persons or to the man in the street. For instance, a philosophical experiment on the trolley case showed that 10% of the testees were prepared to push the fat man onto the track in order to save the five people.
However, the value of such theoretical discussions for real life situations is a bit dubious. Of course, it helps to be prepared for what happens in practice and it is useful that judges and others who have to judge what people did in real life situations have a moral schooling. Nonetheless, the study of theoretical cases is not more than a help. Will you really think about the moral rules you learned, if you have a only a moment to decide what to do when confronted with a dilemma of the trolley problem type? Moreover, situations are seldom as black and white as suggested in the trolley case. You see a driverless, runaway trolley heading for a group of five people on the track, but if you turn a switch and redirect the trolley, it will head for a workman on the other track. But probably you’ll not be sure that the five or the single workman will die when hit by the trolley. Often, people are “only” seriously hurt when touched by a train but not killed. Furthermore, you can try to warn the five or the single workman. So, it’s not unlikely that you’ll turn the switch in order to save lives and that you’ll shout at the workman: “Look out! A trolley is heading for you!” You hope that the workman can jump aside or let himself fall between the rails, so that the trolley literally will run over the workman but without touching him. As we see here, philosophical problems are often not the copy of real life problems. That’s what Camus knew when he preferred his mother to the movement for the independence of Algeria (see last week). Besides that, what you’ll say when asked what to do in the trolley case may also depend on the wording used like whether the man you have to push onto the track is described as “a fat man” or “a big, heavy stranger”; whether he or the others involved are persons you know, whether or not they belong to a despised minority, and so on. There are also all kinds of other reasons that may determine what you’ll do, like your emotional resistance that you yourself have to act in order to kill an innocent single workman even if it will save five other persons.
Many moral dilemmas as they are discussed in philosophy leave out such practical circumstances and in the end they never lose the feeling of being ivory tower problems, how realistic they may be. Emotionally and otherwise it is different whether it is your mother that might be hit by a bomb in a real civil war or whether you discuss it in a philosophy class when no civil war is waging. Philosophical problems often get a different taste in real life and certainly they don’t have the drama of real life as this occurrence shows:

“On 7 January 2015 Corrine Rey, a cartoonist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ... returned from picking up her daughter from kindergarten. She was confronted by two French Jihadist gunmen, who threatened to shoot her daughter unless she keyed in the entry code at the door for the magazine. She did; and the gunmen entered to murder twelve people, including two policemen, as well as shooting eleven others. ..
Should Corrine Rey have been willing to sacrifice her daughter”, so the quote continues, “and herself rather than allow obvious murderers to enter the magazine and possibly kill everyone? Can a mother be blamed for only thinking of protecting her child?”

Kelly L. Ross, who made the website that I just quoted, says that the mother should not have been put in that position and that the safety measures should have been better, but I think that that’s not the problem. Life is such that not everything can be foreseen. In retrospection everything could have been done better, but for good or bad reasons the right measures are often not taken. That’s life and that’s the situation in which we have to take our decisions. Life is not an armchair.

Source: Kelly L. Ross, Some Moral Dilemmas”, on

Monday, September 11, 2017

The trolley problem (2)

The trolley problem is one of the most discussed cases in analytical philosophy. Readers who find its description in my last blog too vague or are not good in visualizing written texts can watch this only 97 seconds lasting video that explains what it is about:
There are several versions of the case and last week I discussed the “tunnel version” in which the five cannot escape because they are in a tunnel. Your only choice is either turning the switch and lead the trolley to another track where a man is walking or doing nothing. However, there are alternative versions in which you perform another action instead of turning a switch in order to save the five people. All involve different, though related, ethical problems. The most treated version is one in which you can push a fat man onto the track, so that the trolley will be stopped, but the fat man will be killed. People may think: Be a hero and jump yourself onto the track. However, because you are as meagre as I am, you will simply be knocked down by the trolley or it will push you aside. Therefore the only options are pushing the fat man onto the track or doing nothing.
Most people judge that it is allowed to turn the switch to save the five but not to push the fat man onto the track, even though in both versions one person is killed and five persons are saved. Philosophers have written a lot about why this is so (and also most philosophers think that it is not allowed to push the fat man), but here I have to bypass their reasons pro and con. The essence is that sacrificing the fat man is a means to save the five, while sacrificing the single walker on the track is a side-effect of turning the switch (while the latter action is the means). In terms of my last blog we can also say that killing the fat man is done, while killing the single walker is enabled (actually I should say: that the single walker is killed is enabled).
For a non-philosopher cases like the trolley problem (if not its more complicated versions) may look weird. You might think that cases are the playthings of philosophers. This can be so, indeed, but these toys have often serious meanings. By analyzing the trolley problem it becomes clear that it is important to distinguish between means and side effects. But the case also exemplifies the question whether we are allowed to do the lesser evil in order to get the bigger good. To answer such questions is not always easy. Therefore it makes sense to rack your brains on simple cases, which in the end appear to be not simple at all. Here are some practical examples that are actually trolley-like problems:
- Many will say that in a war it is allowed to bomb a munitions factory of the enemy. But what if the factory is situated near a residential quarter? For the factory will explode and it will kill many civilians. What if only a few civilians are likely to be killed by the explosion? What if we need to drop hundred bombs for destroying the factory and it is sure that about ten bombs will not fall on the factory but will directly kill civilians living near the factory?
- Stalin and his co-communists thought that it was allowed to kill the “kulaks” for the bigger good of communism. It’s an extreme case of what often happens.
- Is it allowed to demolish the house of an old woman if we destroy her happiness – because she has lived there her whole life – since we want to build a road there, even if this woman is compensated in all ways possible?
- Sartre tells somewhere that an ex-student of his asked him for advice: He wants to join the Free French forces in order to fight against the Nazis. However, then he must leave his mother alone in difficult circumstances, while it might also get her into trouble with the Germans.
Big and small problems are often kinds of trolley problems. The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus dealt with trolley-like problems in his work. His standpoints in such questions made him controversial, so Sarah Bakewell, also because it made that he didn’t support the rebels in the fight for independence of Algeria in the 1950s (Camus was from Algeria). But when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he explained in an interview: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Philosophy is as practical as philosophy can be.

- Bakewell, Sarah, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; pp. 7-8, 246.
- Kamm, F.M., The trolley problem mysteries. With commentaries by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, Shelly Kagan. Edited and introduced by Eric Rakowski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, September 04, 2017

The trolley problem

The tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm, which I discussed in my last blog, can put many philosophical and daily problems in another light, for example the well-known trolley problem. Although the trolley problem is often discussed as a pure philosophical problem, there are many practical versions, like those treated by Dostoevsky and Sartre. Here I’ll focus on a philosophical version of the case, called Bystander: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it will kill five people, if nothing stops it. A bystander can save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley on to another track. However, there is a man walking on that track that will then be killed instead of the five.
There are also other versions of the philosophical trolley problem, for example that there is a driver on the trolley who can turn the switch; that a bystander can stop the trolley by pushing a fat man on the track; etc. But this simple version will do in order to show my point.

Judith Jarvis Thomson discusses the following principle that can guide the decision whether or not to turn the switch: “Though (1) killing five is worse than killing one, (2) killing one is worse than letting five die”.
The principle seems reasonable and moreover it is typical for the debate on the trolley problem, where actually every participant agrees that:
(I) the bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm applies;
(II) turning the switch so that the single walker dies is an act of killing that the bystander does.
I start with assumption II. I have my doubts that turning the switch so that the single walker dies is an act of killing. Of course, it is so that the single walker is killed, if the bystander turns the switch, and it is also the case that killing is a matter of degree, ranging from killing by accident to outright murder. Nevertheless, if we say that the bystander kills the single walker by turning the switch, to me it sounds somewhat odd. It is as if the bystander has the intention to kill the single walker in order to save the five. However, the bystander doesn’t have this intention at all. He merely wants to save the five people. If he could save the single walker as well, he would be very happy. Moreover it is not the bystander who kills the single walker but it is the trolley that does. I think that there is more to say for it that the person who made that the trolley started moving or could move in the direction of the switch is responsible for the killing of either the five or of the single walker. If someone would be punished for the death of one or five persons respectively, it would be him.
Be that as it may, let me examine what the bystander does. The bystander has the intention to save the lives of the five persons on the track. The bystander thinks that he can save these five lives only by turning the switch. Therefore he turns the switch and the five persons are saved. However, the single walker is killed as an unintended consequence of this action. Should we say then nevertheless that the bystander kills the single walker? For, hadn’t the bystander turned the switch, the single walker hadn’t died. It looks the same as if the bystander had killed some by accident.
In order to solve this problem we must look at assumption I. The reason why we say that the bystander kills the single walker is that this assumption gives us only the possibilities to say either that the bystander does something (turning the switch) and then it follows that he kills the single walker; or that the bystander allows something to happen (the switch leave as it is) but then the single walker survives and the five people die. Since the bystander turned the switch, we must say that he killed the single walker. However, as we have seen in my blog last week, the bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm is not correct and must be replaced by the tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm. And if we do so, then we need no longer to say that the bystander killed the single walker, but that by turning the switch he enabled that the single walker was killed (namely by the trolley).
I think that introducing the category of enabling in the debate will put the trolley problem in a new light and maybe it will make that much reasoning on the theme must be revised. One thing that might be changed is the principle quoted above. I think that it’s true that (1) killing five is worse than killing one. It may also be arguabel that (2) killing one is worse than letting five die. However, now we should add a lemma like (3) letting five die is worse than enabling one being killed – assuming that it is possible to defend this view (which I am not yet sure of, since it depends a lot on the conditions that occur).

Reference: Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Kamm on the Trolley Problems”, in F.M. Kamm et al. The Trolley Problem. Mysteries. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp. 113-134 (quotation on p. 114).

Monday, August 28, 2017

On doing and allowing and enabling harm

The distinction between doing and allowing is a generally accepted dichotomy in the philosophy of action. I, too, have used it in my blogs. In short we can say that doing is intentionally making things happen, while allowing is intentionally not intervening when things happen. For instance, John is in coma and has no chance to recover. His family and the medical staff see it as the best solution for John to turn off the life-support machine so that he dies. Therefore the doctor responsible for John’s treatment turns off the machine and John dies. Usually this seen as a case of allowing: The doctor lets John die, we say. However, if a criminal sneaks in John’s room and turns off the machine, since he wants to take revenge on John for some reason, we see it as an intentional killing and call it murder. (see my blogs dated 17 and 24 June 2013) Although I added in my blogs that actually the distinction between doing and allowing is a matter of degree, nevertheless one can ask: Is the distinction really basically bipartite?
I got my doubts when I read an article by Christian Barry who put forward the idea that there is yet a third category, namely enabling, and that the bipartite doing-allowing distinction is not exhaustive. In order to substantiate their thesis the authors do not found their point only on theoretical arguments, but they test it in an experimental setting. Moreover, they don’t consider the distinction in general but they investigate only the distinction between doing and allowing harm. In their investigation they use four cases:
Push: A cart stands at the top of a hill. John pushes it. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
Stayback: A cart is rolling down a hill. John could put a rock in the way of the cart that would stop it, but he does not. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
“Push and Stayback are straightforward in the sense that their classifications under the traditional doing-allowing distinction have been uncontroversial among philosophers”, so Barry “Philosophers generally agree that Push and Push-like cases are cases of doing harm, and Stayback and Stayback-like cases are cases of allowing harm” (p. 68). Actually I don’t fully agree with this remark, but for this blog, I can ignore my criticism.
Two other cases used by the authors in their investigation are:
Interpose: A cart accidentally starts rolling down a hill. Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill, will not be injured by the cart if he can get out of the way of its path. John puts a rock on the ground. The rock stops Tom, and he is injured by the cart.
Remove: A cart is rolling downhill towards a point where there is a rock that would bring it to a stop. John removes the rock. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting there.

While Push and Stayback are cases of doing and allowing, Interpose and Remove exemplify enabling, so Barry In order to explain this, they refer to a study by Barry and Øverland who introduce two factors that separate enabling from doing and allowing: “Relevant action, the first factor, obtains if the question of how an agent is relevant to some harm refers to some action of theirs.” (cf John’s pushing of the cart by which Tom is injured in Push.) “The second factor obtains if there is a complete, intact causal process initiated by the agent’s action that links this action to the harm.” (The cart pushed by John injures Tom in Push) (p. 70). Both factors are present in Push and absent in Stayback. However, in Interpose and Remove the first factor is present but the second factor isn’t: John’s action has an impact on the result of the cart rolling down (namely that Tom is injured), but the relation between John’s action (moving the rock) and Tom being injured is indirect. Therefore we say that moving the rock enables that Tom gets injured and that’s why enabling is a special category next to doing and allowing.

Is this idea also shared by non-philosophers? In order to investigate this, the authors presented several versions of the Push etc. cases to a number of test persons. In a first experiment testees were asked to classify cases as doing or allowing harm. The result was that Push cases were clearly seen as doings and Stayback cases as allowings. However Interposing and Remove cases scored somewhere in between: About half of the testees saw them as doings and the other half as allowings. This suggests, so the authors, “that the traditional bipartite doing-allowing harm distinction cannot capture Interpose and Remove cases.” (p. 77). That enabling can be seen as a separate category was confirmed in a second experiment. Now the test persons were asked to categorize cases as “doing harm”, “allowing harm” or “enabling harm”. It appeared that Interpose and Remove cases were clearly more often seen as enablings than Push and Stayback cases (which hardly were). A third experiment investigated the question whether enabling harm is normatively distinct from both doing harm and allowing harm by asking the testees in different test versions whether John should compensate Tom for the injury. Also now the Interpose and Remove cases emerged as a special category, though not so clearly as in the other experiments.

I think that the conclusion of Barry et. al. is convincing that there is not a bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm, but a tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm. This result has not only theoretical consequences. It is only practical, for it appears that enabling harm is a specific normative category. This means that it has to be allowed for when talking about questions of guilt, responsibility and compensation. What remains is the question whether the tripartite doing-allowing-enabling distinction applies only when someone is harmed, or whether this tripartition generally replaces the dichotomy of doing and allowing.

Source: Christian Barry, Matthew Lindauer and Gerhard Øverland, “Doing, Allowing, and Enabling Harm. An Empirical Investigation”, in Tania Lombrozo, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; pp. 62-90.

Monday, August 21, 2017

First encounters (2)

The place where Lenin and Stalin met for the first time
 in what is now the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Filand

When I was on holiday in Finland recently, one of the things I wanted to do anyway was visiting the Lenin Museum in Tampere (also known as Tammerfors). The museum as such is interesting and also the building is because of its typical style, which is a mixture of the Neo-Renaissance style and Art Nouveau. However, for me it was especially important that it was here that Lenin and Stalin met for the first time, for in those days hundred years ago the building was used by the Tampere Worker’s Society as a meetingplace for workers.
Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic, as I wrote a few weeks ago in my blog on the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge. But after a bad first encounter between both philosophers, in the end they became friends. Also the first time that Lenin and Stalin met was not really good. Lenin was already the big man of the Russian revolutionary movement and when the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party held a congress in Tampere in the Russian -ruled Finland in December 1905, Stalin was looking forward to it: Now he could meet the man whom he admired a lot. But Stalin left the congress disappointed. “I was hoping to see the mountain eagle of our party”, he wrote later, “a great man, great not only politically, but ... physically, too, for Lenin had taken shape in my mind as a giant, stately and imposing”. But he appeared to be “the most ordinary man, below average height, in no way ... different from ordinary mortals”. Moreover, Lenin was criticized by the other conferees –  also by Stalin – and in the end he had to take back his proposals, defending himself that as an émigré he had lost contact with the Russian reality. Later the relationship between both men would improve and Lenin would become Stalin’s mentor. However, not long before his death – it was in 1923 and he was already ill – Lenin judged that it was better to replace Stalin by Trotsky as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, for Stalin was ill-suited for the position while Trotsky was the most capable man in the General Committee according to him. It didn’t happen, and a few years later Trotsky had to flee and in 1940 he was murdered by a Soviet secret agent in Mexico.
Trotsky’s first encounter with Lenin is also worth mentioning. Usually we see other persons for the first time in public and semi-public places, at parties and meetings and the like. But in a bedroom? It’s quite unlikely that you even met your partner there for the first time. Not so Trotsky and Lenin. Trotsky had an appointment with Lenin in London, where the great communist leader lived then (not far from where Karl Marx had written his Capital). Lenin was already to bed and slept, when Trotsky knocked on the door. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, let him in in her nightclothes and brought the visitor to the bedroom.
As you see, first encounters can happen at the most unexpected places, and as said before in a blog, they say so much about the way we live and the kind of person we are.

- Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003; p. 92.
- Robert Himmer, “First impressions matter: Stalin's initial encounter with Lenin, Tammerfors 1905”, on
- Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Paradoxes of Power 1978-1928. London, Penguin Books, 2015.
- Nancy Caldwell Sorel “First encounters: When Lenin met Trotsky”, on
- Wikipedia