Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Philosophy and Dinner Parties

I was prompted to think about the topic of this posting by a conjunction of two events, one concerning activities common to the season and the other the recent re-reading of a passage in the Doctrine of Virtue. Let's take the two in turn.

Firstly, this is a season for inviting people round to dinner and being invited by others. On such occasions, conversation is a principal activity and such conversation includes general topics of interest. There are two notable features of such conversations. The first is that topics that win general favour include politics (despite or perhaps because of the controversy they bring), relationships and topics of local interest and, in addition, references to mutual acquaintances and their goings-on. What is generally absent from such discussions is any explicit mention of philosophy. This doesn't entail, however, that there is no philosophical content to the conversations in question. There frequently is such content and it comes in two general forms. One of the forms is an implied reference where beliefs that are sincerely held are defended and elaborated in more or less sweeping ways and often involving detailed statements of quasi-religious sort that verge on the metaphysical. The other form, perhaps more frequent but certainly less entertaining, are the implied references to logical or general principles to sustain, underpin or often undermine, the views of others. The second type of reference is much more covert than the first and less intriguing to examine.

So let's take the first type of reference. This is activated usually when the fundamentals really do, in some form, come up. References to such verities as "human nature" are invariably involved in such instances and such references have, of late, been given renewed support by environmental crisis which apparently permits the vocabulary of original sin to get a new outing. In addition to these appeals to the role of "human nature" we can also find on such occasions a general appeal to principles that are of real or ultimate importance with such quasi-Feuerbachian claims as the generic appeal to love or such neo-Platonist conceptions as a visible incarnation of goodness having a real role in history occasionally surfacing. This occurs, naturally, when conversing with the most idealistic of one's associates. By contrast, the more cynically minded can compete by making the "human nature" appeal count in a different direction such that the original sin contention serves to undermine the idealism of the other party. The striking element involved in such conversations remains however the lack of appeal to any general standards of evidence in argument and the instant dismissal of any attempt at sustained serious enquiry as not remotely relevant.

This brings me to the second element of my posting, the recent re-reading of a section of the Doctrine of Virtue. This is where Kant is discussing the question of stupefying oneself by excessive use of food or drink. Whilst the general considerations given here aren't immensely interesting the casuistical questions that are posed in regard to the topic are. Here Kant talks about how the use of wine "enlivens conversation" and allows people to speak more freely though he does go on to point out the problem with measuring when someone have themselves become incapable of carrying out any measurement! So the use of drink poses a moral problem since use of it does further the end of the occasion but over-use undercuts it. How to square such a problem?

The second element of Kant's casuistical questions concerns the way that banquets aim at a moral end since they bring people together for the sake of conversation. However, the number of guests should not, as Kant, following Chesterfield, puts it, exceed the number of the muses since otherwise the arrangement of the guests will then allow for only a little conversation. There is a further problem in the very nature of such occasions since they do tend to promote intemperance, something itself immoral. Such are the fine calculations that philosophically need to be considered in relation to dinner parties. Oddly enough, whilst giving these philosophical reflections on the dinner party Kant says little, as I have above, about the extent to which philosophy itself appears in the conversation at these parties. Perhaps the parties he attended involved less philosophically inclined guests than those I am encountering at present?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Seasonal Appeal: Camfed International

Whilst the point of this blog is not mainly to endorse charities it is, I think, worth taking advantage of the Christmas period to endorse an international charity that has a very specific and important mission. The charity in question is Camfed International. Camfed was founded in 1993 by Ann Cotton with a general and particularly laudable aim, namely, to improve the chances for girls' education in Africa. Camfed stands for the Campaign for Female Education and its focus is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the main reason why girls are not educated is due to poverty with families choosing to educate boys first due to the latter's greater chance of employment later. To even the chances for girls, outside action is needed.

Not only is this so but also the economic advantages of girls' education is enormous. Girls are much more likely to invest income earned directly into their family and income is much more likely to be earned if they are educated. Educated girls are much less likely to contract HIV, not least because they are more informed when engaging in sexual relations. Educated girls will have fewer children when they grow older and those they have will be proportionately much more likely to survive infancy. General focus on girls' emancipation, particularly in Africa, is crucial to development as it doubles the work-force and ensures greater opportunities for more equitable relations. Click on the link to Camfed and donate something and support educating a girl because, when you educate a girl, everything changes!

Up-Date on Guinea Massacre

The massacre carried out in Guinea on September 28th this year, which was discussed in an earlier posting, has now been covered in a United Nations investigation. The report has found that 156 people were killed in the massacre by army and members of government militia and that an additional 109 girls and women were subjected to rape, sexual mutilation and sequestration for repeated rape. Hundreds of others were tortured and abused. The massacre was a response to a demonstration against the military ruler President Moussa Dadis Camara who was subjected to an assassination attempt on December 3rd.

Camara is currently in Morocco where he is being treated for wounds suffered after the attack of December 3rd. The UN commission of enquiry into the massacre of September 28th has concluded that there is sufficient evidence to believe he was personally responsible for the massacre and that he should be tried by the International Criminal Court.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

International Relations in the First Decade of the 21st Century

As we approach the completion of the first decade of this century it is worth looking at what it brought us in terms of developments in international relations. There have been three major stories during this decade, the first concerning the relationship between the US and the Middle East, the second the expansion of the European Union and the third the rise of China and India.

Taking these topics in turn the US's role in world affairs has been subject to considerable controversy, particularly around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more generally with regard to policies that concern Israel and Palestine. The wars in the area have been consistently framed, not least by critics of the US, in relation to the continued failure of any momentum towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In some respects the Israeli policies in this decade have been surprising since Ariel Sharon, whose name was hardly a synonym for peace, proclaimed a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories, a withdrawal that, in its turn, precipitated a split within the Palestinians that led to a resurgence of support for Hamas. Israel also launched a war in the Lebanon in response to shelling from Hezbollah, a war that, at the time, was widely regarded as ending in a loss for the Israelis but which has produced the outcome they desired (cessation of the shelling). There have been no substantive moves towards peace with either the Palestinians or any of their neighbours during this decade.

It is true that the failure of movements towards peace by the Israelis is something that has been underpinned by a continued record of pretty uncritical support from the US. The majority of the decade saw the US governed by President Bush Jr and, despite being the first President to unequivocally state support for a Palestinian state, Bush effectively did nothing to bolster the Palestinian leadership and has to be regarded as at fault for the rise of Hamas. Bush also launched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Obama is now left with. The war in Iraq, whatever else one might say about it, was handled catastrophically badly with the immediate aftermath of the invasion handled in a lamentably poor way. The Obama administration unfortunately has as little appetite for nation-building as the Bush one did with the result that the long-term prospects for Afghanistan are far from rosy. Obama has noted the need for integrated policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, something evident given the continued links between the Pakistani government and many of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The failure, however, to motivate a responsible civil society in Pakistan to take seriously the notion that other factors than India may be of concern in the area continues to resound as a serious failure in Western policy.

The wider Middle East remains an area that is fraught with instability. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have been taken to be allies of the US both have severe faults. Saudi Arabia was widely understood to be an incubator for Al-Qaeda and the conditions that permitted this have scarcely been reformed. Similarly, the major opposition force in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a force that has emerged as such a force in lieu of any serious secular movement, the latter having all suffered repression. Since these are the countries to which Western countries look when thinking of allies in the region it is hardly surprising that the rest of the region looks bleak. From Algeria to Syria there is a general pattern of dictatorship, repression, human rights abuse and failure of serious development.

By contrast the European Union's expansion is a hopeful sign at least in the sense that it has helped to motivate the countries of Eastern Europe to set about economic and social developments that advance the area in general. The incorporation of these countries is hopeful for the security and prosperity of all the people of Europe with countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, all set to be able to take advantage of these new opportunities. Other countries have, however, fared less well with Romania and Bulgaria still seeming fixed in corruption and having only dubiously democratic institutions. The EU generally seems set on rejecting Turkey, a mistake whose proportions will take a long time measuring since this will ensure that Turkey will seek allies elsewhere and be more likely to move away from the path of attempted reconciliation of Islam and modernity that the AKP promised. The EU generally also appears singularly unsuited at developing as a serious force in world politics, riven as it is by national disputes and having at its heart institutions that have little normative validity.

The rise of China and India are phenomena of many sides. China's rise is generally understood to be more considerable than that of India and during the course of this year reached such an extent that talk of a G2 in the world began to be generally discussed. The economic strides made by China should not conceal the fact that it is the largest dictatorship in the world, governed by a party that has no commitment to even transition towards democratic institutions and which has only a very partial commitment to even the outline of the idea of the rule of law. Due to this the economic development in China remains unstable as it is riven by regional and national disputes that, combined with the demands of a newly emergent civil society, ensure that its rulers have no appetite for looking outwards at the world. China's engagement in Africa, amongst other places, has at present no enlightened element to it, supporting as it does, despotisms and local rulers.

India's rise, whilst less dramatic than that of China, is nonetheless, in its way, more encouraging. India, despite facing immense problems, is a society with constitutional elements and a basic commitment to working with moves towards openness. India still faces a hostile and suspicious Pakistan however, something reinforced by India's moves into Afghanistan. India also will have to face difficult questions as it balances its relations with the US with those it will have to cope with in relation to Russia and, indeed, China. Leadership in India is perhaps more sorely needed than anywhere in the world, except, naturally, in the US.

Less central than any of these trends but not something that can be ignored is the role of Russia. Since Putin replaced Yeltsin as President the basic trajectory of the country has been back towards dictatorial measures and the construction of an effective corporatist state with large areas of economic life managed either by the state directly or via arrangements with gangster elements. Effectively this makes Russia a very frightening place internally and helps to produce an unpredictable foreign policy, as, for example, when this year it emerged as effectively a cheer-leader for the repressive regime in Iran. The difficulty of engagement with Russia is pronounced since the governing class there is imbued with cynicism and is inherently turned towards violent solutions to its problems as was witnessed with the war in Georgia last year. As with the Chinese, the Russians have little interest in engaging in any normatively serious way with world affairs ensuring that they play a role of destabilisation, something serious in view of their holdings of energy supplies. In other respects the Russians have however entered a phase of continued decline and are far less likely to have serious impact on world affairs than any of the other groups mentioned here.

A word on one particularly significant event this year: the upsurge of protest in Iran. Given that the Iranian regime is threatening with regard to development of nuclear power and its links with the newly powerful Shiite tendencies in Iraq, the emergence of serious opposition opens out the prospect for a movement that could re-shape the Middle East. Watching developments there will continue to be very important.

These trends when put together suggest a very difficult decade ahead, one in which there will constantly be posed as a vital matter how the development of China and India will effect world affairs. Those concerned with international analysis should be as engaged with these countries and their influence as with that of the US, something that requires ceasing to always regard the US as either the most important benevolent or maleficent force and taking a more general view of what and how the forces that can bring openness and enlightenment can be supported in the years to come.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Archbishop, Religion and the Public Sphere

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the official head of the world-wide Anglican Communion, has provided some thoughts in an interview given yesterday to the Daily Telegraph. The interview provides some gems, not least the one concerning "faith initiatives" tending to treat followers of Christianity and other religions as "oddballs" who, for some incomprehensible reason, are viewed generally as being "a problem". During the course of the interview itself, however, the Archbishop is reported as stating some things that might well lead one to view both himself and the Communion he heads as being, indeed, problematic.

Questioned concerning the recent initiative in Uganda to pass a bill that would have led to death penalties being enforced for homosexuals in some instances the Archbishop, who has been very vocal about the decisions of the American Episcopal Church to promote homosexual people to the level of bishop, was noticeably more reticent about this bill that threatens to end a number of homosexual lives. Mentioning that the Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi, has "not taken a position on the bill", Archbishop Williams does not follow up this observation with the kind of rounded condemnation of Orombi that he was not afraid to make of Gene Robinson. Could it be that Archbishop Williams is less bothered by the passage of this bill than by the promotion of equal rights for gay people?

Not only is Archbishop Williams, in this bizarre failure to make the key issue one of homosexuals being viciously attacked by the Ugandan government, out of step with general opinion in the UK, but he is also apparently surprised by the nature of the Roman Catholic Church. When questioned about the recent attempt of the Pope to run off with members of the Anglican Communion who are unable to accept such heresies as gay and women bishops, Archbishop Williams mentions surprise about the way he was wasn't consulted and laments that: "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the whole doesn't go in for much consultation".

As is made clear by the Vatican itself, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is what, in less polite times, was known as the Inquisition so, no, it would follow that such a body isn't really a consultative one, more, shall we say, directorial in its view of the world. In its constitution (article 51, sub-section 1) it makes quite clear that it sees its competence to include examination of "books and writings" in order (article 51, sub-section 2) to "reprove" those thought to contravene Church doctrine. It is, in other words, as it always was, the censorial arm of the Church, the one that spreads universal love by means of as harsh repressive apparatus as it is able to build in any given country.

The existence of such bodies as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of such duplicitous people as the Archbishop of Canterbury are doubtless the reason why governments (and not just in the UK) have a tendency in the contemporary world to relate to certain manifestations of "faith" as indicative of an "oddball" mentality. Not only is this so but the formation of states that are in their general outlook, if not always in their constitutions, secular in character, is indicative of an acceptance that there are problems with viewing government and public policy as open to being shaped by the orientations of those of "faith".

It is often pointed out that there are contrary tendencies in most religions and that religious leaders are capable of mobilising the resources of their traditions in any number of ways. This is certainly true and it is beyond doubt that the Reverend Martin Luther King and such contemporary luminaries as Bishop Desmond Tutu, derive authority when opposing oppression (which Bishop Tutu extended, unlike Archbishop Williams, to opposing oppression of homosexuals) from their status as people of faith. On this basis it is then argued that there are good reasons to fear "privatization of faith". However, in response it has to be said that the general basis of intervention of religious leaders in politics has not been and is not likely to become, encouraging. The notion that there should need to be an appeal to doctrines that are said to rest upon historical revelations in order to condemn oppression is one that hardly merits examination and, noticeably, those religious leaders who do engage in such condemnation necessarily have to offer secular rationales for doing so, rationales that include accounts of the common good.

All debates that involve reasoned accounts of policy in the public sphere should be welcomed but there is no specifically privileged role that religious leaders have in such discussion and certainly no grounds for listening to them when they claim that oppressive laws are required because mandated by some obscure reference of ancient provenance in their sacred texts. Public discussion of policy in a contemporary society should not be grounded on texts that were produced in societies of quite a different sort to ours and whose moralities often do not bear critical examination.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


Intriguingly, given the recent developments in Iran as reported in my last posting, there has recently been formed an International Bureau for Laicite. It has taken its name from the French concept that was built into the law of the French Republic on 9th December 1905 which is understood here to mean "the total disinvestment of the state regarding religions" as opposed to the English "secularism" thought to entail equal tolerance towards all religions.

Whilst in many respects it is a good sign that people are willing to form new bodies that identify fundamentalist religion as a current and important threat to open societies and to positively argue for a view of the state that does not involve incorporation of religion there are still elements of the founding statement of the Bureau that bother me. Firstly, the general acceptance of the French republic as a model as indicated in the use of the concept of laicity is itself problematic. In France this concept is far from employed evenly. The recent ban on head-scarfs for Muslim girls was not one that applied reciprocally to other religions. For example the parallel drew with it for Christians was a ban on wearing "large" crosses and there was also no attempt on the part of the French authorities to deal with the meaning of the head-scarf as a symbol of modesty that is, in any case, only partially religious in nature. President Sarkozy also recently apparently welcomed the recent Swiss vote banning the construction of minarets and argued that members of religions should be "modest" in their demeanour but didn't follow his welcoming of the ban on minarets with an argument for banning construction of Catholic cathedrals or some form or other of "large" Christian symbol.

The truth is that the French view of laicity has consistently contained a preference for Catholicism over other forms of Christianity and for Christianity over non-Christian religions so I don't regard reference to it in the setting up of a secularist campaign as a particularly good sign. Secondly, the statement founding the group includes a vigorous denunciation, in all too French style, of "neo-liberalism" blaming this fictive creature for all the present ills of the world. It would be useful instead to look more closely at a number of elements that perpetuate injustice in the world including French support for protectionist measures for agriculture, measures that ensure that French products are given preferential treatment over those from much poorer countries. It might also be too much to expect that a campaign so correctly focused on secular principles would do much to demonstrate against the contraventions of such principles in France, Switzerland, the US and the UK. But perhaps that will come out of future work of the group.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Iranian Student Day

Yesterday's Student Day demonstrations in Iran occurred, according to what the world media has been able to discern, across a number of cities including Tehran, Kerman, Mashhad, Isfahan, Hamedan and Shiraz. Most importantly, the demonstrations yesterday included actions that directly targeted the notion of the "Islamic Republic". In Tehran there were reports of burnings of posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and marchers carrying flags from which the word "Allah" had been removed. At Sharif University protestors have been video-taped shouting: "Death to the oppressor, whether shah or supreme leader".

These actions show the protest movement in Iran is emerging in a direction that is flagrantly at odds with its official "insider" leadership. The movement to free Iran from "Islamic" dictatorship is central to the direction of the world today. If a secular, democratic, free and open Iran can emerge then the prospects for the Middle East will entirely alter. The success of this movement and its emergence as a force for secular democracy are key issues for anyone today concerned for a move towards open societies generally. Best wishes to the movement and to its increasingly secular direction and here's hoping for a leadership that catches up with the spontaneous movement against a regime led by clerics.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Commerce, Communication and Hospitality

In an article published in Politics and Ethics Review on the subject of colonialism and hospitality Peter Niesen makes some key claims concerning the interpretation of the meaning of hospitality in Kantian theory. In the discussion of the 3rd definitive article for perpetual peace where Kant limits cosmopolitan right to conditions of universal hospitality Niesen focuses specifically on a key aspect. Kant refers in this article on the right to be a guest and specifies this as the right "to present oneself for society" (Ak. 8: 358). Subsequently this presentation of oneself is further determined as "the conditions which make it possible to seek commerce with the old inhabitants" (Ak. 8: 358).

The seeking of commerce is clearly not equivalent to its attainment so Kant does not here speak of a right to commerce but only of a right to be able to attain it. Niesen understands this as "a communicative right", that is, a right to make "communicative offers". Somewhat oddly and partly by associating this with statements Kant makes at the conclusion of the Doctrine of Virtue concerning social intercourse (Ak. 6: 473) this communicative right is presented by Niesen in terms of a general right to free speech on Kant's part. More persuasive evidence for a connection between the statement in Perpetual Peace and a view of free speech rights are the references Niesen points to elsewhere in Kant's works. For example, in the introduction to the Doctrine of Right, in the context of discussing the "one innate right" to freedom Kant derives from it some authorizations which, he says, "are not really distinct from it" (Ak. 6: 237). Included amongst these are "such things as merely communicating his thoughts to them" (Ak. 6: 238).

As part of his concluding remarks concerning the relation of theory and practice in the right of a state Kant also arrives at the key importance of making publicly known one's opinions. Here Kant explicitly states that "freedom of the pen" is the sole means by which the people's right can be expressed in relation to a sovereign, an argument used there in response to Hobbes (Ak. 8: 304). Niesen lists these points alongside each other as part of a general argument in Kant for freedom of expression.

Without directly here attempting to engage Niesen's specific argument for a general argument for freedom of expression I did think it worth returning to the relationship between commerce and communication and what this might tell us about hospitality. If a right to seek commerce is to be understood in Niesen's sense, as a special kind of communicative right, then it follows that restriction on commerce is a form of restriction of communication. Despite this, it remains true that in the discussion of the third definitive article of perpetual peace that Kant remarks approvingly on the restrictions of commercial practice imposed on the Western powers by Japan and China. The reason for this is due to the colonialist policies of these powers, policies that Kant here clearly condemns.

The consideration of Kant's attitude towards these policies of China and Japan leads Niesen to argue for a distinction between commercial speech strictly speaking which covers "messages that are economic in intent" from a general commitment to free speech. So, despite the fact that Niesen initially interprets the reference to commerce in the treatment of the third definitive article as a communicative right he is nonetheless driven by the consideration of the examples of China and Japan to understand hospitality in such a way that restriction of commerce can be compatible with it even though commerce is the first referent Kant makes to help us understand hospitality.

Niesen is guided by the understanding that Kant is not committed in principle to unrestricted free trade and the approval voiced of the restrictive policies of Japan and China do make this clear. However it remains true on Niesen's account that we need to connect the treatment of commerce as a form of communication that is apparently open to restriction to two other elements of Kant's account. Firstly, to the provisional possession of the property of the earth (which should be, but is not by Niesen, connected to the state of nature between states) and to the injustice of colonialist adventures. If commerce as a communicative act is restricted by the latter it is nonetheless in some sense commended by the former. Further, someone who is washed up on the shores of a foreign place and not able to engage there in commerce due to restriction faces the prospect of death, the very prospect that should be ruled out by the right of hospitality. Niesen's restrictive understanding of commercial speech seems to raise serious problems for the consistency of Kant's view.

Without wishing to articulate a reading of hospitality that would commit Kant to a universal right of free trade it remains problematic in principle to endorse the restriction of trade Kant apparently allows when it is in conflict with a basic understanding of the right to hospitality. So a reading of the view of the trade policies of China and Japan that is not simply based, as Niesen's is, on a restrictive view of commercial speech, seems required.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Impact Assessment Up-Date

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the main lecturers' union here in the UK, the University and Colleges Union has a piece in this week's copy of Times Higher Education. As she points out the campaign thus far against the notion of impact assessment has been very successful but with time running out for the gathering of responses to this idea it is all the more important that there is a last push against it. For the record, it remains true that acceding to it, in whatever small degree (and currently it is far from being a small degree taking up, as it will, 25% of the final score of a research assessment of any unit being assessed) is something that makes little, if any, sense in relation to philosophy in particular.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Citizenship and Religion

The recent referendum in Switzerland concerning the construction of minarets has provoked widespread debate and not a little condemnation of the Swiss electorate. Certainly the decision was part of a general campaign there that did not involve an inclusive view of citizenship. However, the debate and decision should not be viewed as isolated. There is also the ban on head-scarfs in France and periodic debate generally concerning the nature and point of religious symbols and their place in public life (particularly in the US).

The nub of the questions that arise here are, however, rarely unpicked from the general questions motivating particular discussions and decisions. What I mean here is that the nature of citizenship should be being discussed, not particular religions and certainly not religions that happen to be minorities in a given place. Citizenship of a country with a broadly republican (in the Kantian sense) notion of itself should not be being defined in terms of whether people are adherents of a particular religion or whether, as members of this religion, they decide to adopt particular types of clothes or worship in certain structures. It should rather concern living in a way that does not conflict with the normative structure of republican governance.

However, putting the point this way can, and often clearly does, cause confusion. In France, in particular, it appears that the notion of the republic is bound up with the celebration of distinct values (particularly, since the beginning of the 20th century, secular ones) that are thought to be violated by the adoption of certain styles of clothing in public or the wearing of certain religious symbols. This conception of republicanism is far removed from the Kantian one. Kant comprehends the style of life that a republic requires as living in accord with the supreme (or universal) principle of right, even without requiring that this principle be explicitly endorsed by anyone as part of their structure of maxims. Given that right is comprehended in relation to universal laws (and subsequently with an authorization of coercion) the basic structure of this republic has a formal and not a material pattern. Lack of recourse to a justification of this kind of republicanism can only lead to the pattern of thinking about republican citizenship in such a way that it leads to a "clash of cultures". In order to promote stepping back from this in such a way that we can consider again the point of republics I suggest thinking anew about the relationship between the principle of right and publicity. Expect more in further postings.