Sunday, 28 February 2010

Coercion, Prevention and the Nature of Autonomy

Recently there has been an interesting debate concerning the status of immigration controls between David Miller and Arash Abizadeh in the pages of the journal Political Theory. The debate involves a number of interlocking questions that are too involved to adequately summarize here but at the heart of it there is a dispute concerning whether it is correct to view immigration controls as being "coercive" with Abizadeh presenting them as not only being coercive but, as such, in violation of "autonomy" whilst Miller, by contrast, denies that they are intrinsically "coercive" and, hence, that they are in principle "coercive" (something Miller defends by distinguishing "coercion" from "prevention").

Rather than try to in any sense arbitrate between the positions in this dispute I would prefer instead to raise a question concerning the degree of agreement there is between the parties to it concerning the understanding of "coercion". Abizadeh explicitly follows a view of coercion that was first set out in the form he adopts by Robert Nozick and that understands coercion primarily as an imposition on the one who is coerced, viewing coercion primarily as an attack on autonomy that requires special justifications. On the basis of this view Abizadeh has motivated a view of the state that sees it as having to answer to a general demos beyond its own declared borders. In response Miller has presented a parallel view of coercion that sees it as imposing a negative on others whilst "prevention", by contrast, is something that simply blocks one's following a certain kind of path to one's end (but not the end itself or as such). So, for Miller, the analogue is that if someone refuses to marry you then they have not "coerced" you but merely prevented you as you can still marry but not the person in question. On these grounds Miller hopes to provide a basis for states not being answerable to an extensive demos for acts of prevention whilst still apparently accepting that "coercion", as such, does primarily have to be understood as a violation of autonomy that requires special justification.

I'm going to here leave aside the example over which the argument between Abizadeh and Miller is taking place, namely, the example of immigration controls. It is not that debate over the status and limit of them is not interesting but only that the question concerning the understanding of coercion and its relationship to autonomy is a conceptually prior question and that on this prior question the disputants seem to have a great deal of common ground.

The common ground is that the Nozickian paradigm of understanding "coercion" receives a lot of assent from both (despite Miller's central point being that the notion of it in Nozick is too broad). This is in the respect that both tend to see coercion as problematic in itself and in need of very special justification due to their joint commitment to a kind of liberal political philosophy that begins from the standpoint of the individual and relates to state intervention as something that is imposed on that individual and hence as always needing to be viewed in such a way that it requires specific justification.

A more republican understanding of the state does not begin by viewing it with suspicion due to a kind of pre-political commitment to "autonomy". This can be seen clearly in the case of Kant's view of coercion. Rather than start from a position that sees coercion as something entirely extrinsic to the status of the person and thus as compromising of "autonomy" Kant begins with a view of "external freedom" that sees it as a product of reciprocal interaction and mutuality.  Kant begins from a notion of universal law that is the basis of discussion of political freedom. So, Kant speaks about a "reciprocal relation of choice", and this leads him to a general account of right as "the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be united with the choice of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom" (Ak. 6: 230).

The formulation of this "universal law" defines the conditions of what I have elsewhere termed "effective choice", choice that can be exercised in such a way that there can be mutual interaction between individuals such that autonomy can be given content. So, rather than viewing autonomy as a "primitive" that is accepted as a pre-political value and then requiring special justification for any violation of it, Kant rather interprets "autonomy" in such a way that its effective existence is comprehended through the reciprocal operation of coercion. This is why the universal principle of right is formulated in the following manner:

"Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law". (Ak. 6: 230)

So, any action that is capable of coexistence with the freedom of others would be an action that is right, and any attempt to restrict this action would be wrong but, similarly, if action is formulated in this way then the reference to coexistence is written into the social contract from the beginning, not added to it later in such a way as to always require additional justification. On this conception, then, right is intrinsically connected, as Kant explicitly states, with an authorization to use coercion so coercion is at the heart of right itself. In this respect whatever position one takes on the right of states to restrict immigration it cannot be correct to view this "coercive" act (if it is that) as one that requires some new element of justification to be added in to our understanding of the state as, rather, the state needs to be seen as the coercive enterprise that it is due to its being the basis of right.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Gay Marriage and "Expressive Significance"

In an interview with The Nation as part of her promotion of her new book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and  Constitutional Law there are a number of interesting points made by Martha Nussbaum. The general argument of the book, which sounds like it will be a must-read, is to the effect that most of the "arguments" against gay marriage are effectively non-public when looked at with a critical eye. The most serious of them, she suggests, are ways of expressing a generic feeling - disgust - which is not capable of being incorporated into public reason. Evaluation of this general argument and the alternative she offers to such responses - a politics of humanity - will have to wait until I have had time to read the book. But in the interview she uses a very important phrase which captures well the reasons why gay people want to get married and what, I suspect, is at issue in the opposition to this. She speaks of the "expressive significance" of the ceremonial occasion for the people in question and for those who value that couple.

When I and my partner had a Civil Partnership ceremony four years ago now this notion of "expressive significance" was very much to the forefront of my mind. The exceptional sense that the relationship we had formed and which we had waited many years to have recognised in this way was at last being formally sanctioned and expressly commended as a role model for others - this was for me one of the most moving elements of the experience of the event. This significance, it seems to me, is precisely what advocates of gay marriage are most concerned to claim for their union. And, it is precisely this that the opponents of gay marriage are most adamant in opposing. It's true, as Nussbaum indicates in passing, that many arguments against gay marriage are "religious" in nature, meaning that people cite particular Scriptures as indicative of a certain timeless truth and has having evident meaning. Such use of the Scriptures in question is not, and never has been in the history of any religion, uncontested. The comprehension of the books in question has been always part of a history of struggle within the communities of those who believe in them and as John Boswell demonstrated some time ago in his superb book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, homosexuality in particular, has been responded to in rather varied ways within the history of Christianity.

In any case, such "religious" objections to one side, the response that Nussbaum is tracing is one that should be recognised squarely as what it is. Those who oppose gay marriage oppose it directly because the "expressive significance" that it certainly has for those to whom it would be awarded is precisely what they wish to deny us.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Google and Italy

Only recently Google got involved in a situation in China which led to interventions from none other the US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they protested violations, assumed to be authorised by the state and which are now being presented as the work of students at some colleges. Fresh from this difficulty Google has now run into what is, potentially, an even more serious problem but not, this time, in an explicitly authoritarian country but instead in a European "democracy".

As is reported in detail on Google's Blog an Italian court has ruled that Google is itself legally liable for the posting of a video that featured hateful bullying of an autistic child. It appears that the fact that the video in question was removed as soon as Google was notified of its existence is not even considered a mitigation of the supposed "offence" and nor is the fact that Google cooperated with the authorities in tracking down the person who originally filmed the video. The effective implication of this judgment is extremely serious since it would, if upheld, ensure that any ISP would be liable for anything posted on their servers, something which would lead to the ending of ISPs themselves since no one would wish to face such legal liability for the actions of others. It is true, as is asserted in a posting over at Crooked Timber that there is, sadly, nothing new in the eccentricities of Italian politics and that understanding there of standards otherwise widely accepted is often oddly out of kilter. But such a judgment cries out for the strongest condemnation and should not merely be over-turned but be the basis of a serious challenge to the competence of the judge who made it.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Levels of Generality in Moral Thinking

Before returning to more detailed questions about the relationship of Ross' views to those of Kant it is worth pausing to think about a basic reason why there is emerging a tendency amongst some to invoke Ross as a kind of corrective to Kant. This seems to rest on a claim about the nature of generality in moral thinking. Basically, the suspicion seems to be of the following order. Kant sets out for us a claim for universal principles and this claim poses a general point about the need for generalization for there to be moral principles. However, work on the examples Kant gives in the Groundwork tends to produce frustration on a number of grounds, one of which concerns the alleged "formality" of Kant's treatment in echo of the famous complaint made by Hegel.

In response to this there then tends to emerge a concern with thinking about how to relate formal universal principles to maxims that specifically are such as to be action-guiding. The result of that inquiry tends to be that there is a felt need for something like what Richard Hare once described as "rules of thumb". These rules are meant to play some kind of role (as happens in versions of rule-utilitarianism) that gives us a safeguard way of protecting the principles of "common sense morality" whilst admitting a base of reference to universal principles when trouble arises. This kind of solution produces dissatisfaction of a different sort if the "rules" in question are not thought specific enough and from there we can easily move to invocation of Ross' prima facie duties. The problem, however, with that mode of reconciliation between Ross and Kant is precisely the difficulty that Ross' prima facie duties are not, strictly considered, really duties at all (as demonstrated in previous postings). Then it turns out that perhaps what was "missing" in the response to Kant might turn out to be something more basic than the first response suggested, namely, a comprehension of practical reason. That indicates the rationale for a position like that of Stratton-Lake. 

Friday, 12 February 2010

KCL and Jan Palmowski

A new report over at Leiter Reports provides further details concerning the leaked document about restructuring at King's College London. The author of the document in question has been revealed here to be no other than Professor Jan Palmowski, head of the school of humanities whose academic work has concentrated primarily on questions of identity, especially in German history. Palmowski's management methods are detailed in the posting over at Leiter Reports and seem a model for ensuring division, resentment and anger. 

Earlier this week Radio 4's Today programme featured a discussion on one of the results of Palmowski's report, namely, that the only existing United Kingdom Chair in Palaeography be axed and can still be listened to here. The defender of the chair is from the British Museum whilst the one apparently happy to defend this vandalism is from the Institute of Directors!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Suitability and Prima Facie Duties

As I mentioned in the previous posting on W.D. Ross, the suggestion that the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties might reside in a sense that there was something "suitable" in the situation that called for the performance of the duty has been questioned by one of the foremost contemporary scholars of Ross, Philip Stratton-Lake. Stratton-Lake's suggestion is that this picture of the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties is "too aesthetic" and, indeed, Ross does refer to an aesthetic sense of harmony when he mentions this view of the relationship between prima facie duties and actual duties. 

However, this reference to an aesthetic sense is far from being sufficient as a discussion of Ross' reference to "suitability" as a basis for connecting prima facie duties and actual duties in the argument of The Foundations of Ethics. Stratton-Lake's account only refers to the first place Ross discusses "suitability" in the third chapter of The Foundations of Ethics but Ross later returns to the topic in the seventh chapter of this book where he simply states that a "right action" means in general "one that is morally suitable to the situation". In returning to the topic here Ross differentiates between various senses of suitability referring to objective and subjective elements. The objective elements of the situation are the elements of it that suggest an action as suitable to the results we think it would produce whilst the subjective elements, by contrast, refer only to our thoughts concerning the probable results of alternative actions.

But this is not the only distinction Ross introduces since he goes on to include the difference between performing an action from a certain motive as involving suitability in a situation in a sense in which a mere action, regardless of motive, does not. This leads to the following apparent clarification:

Both the view that it is our duty to produce certain results, and the view that it is our duty to act from certain motives, are natural enough perversions of what seems to be the true view, that it is our duty to set ourselves to produce certain results. It is sometimes said that it is neither results nor motives but intentions that make actions right or wrong, and this is almost true. There is a certain danger in laying the stress on intention, since intentions may remain idle; but it would be true to say that the nature of what is intended in an act is what makes the act right or wrong. (pp. 159-60.)

Here Ross' prose almost catches one out as in the first sentence it takes a very attentive ear to note the difference between having a duty to produce certain results on the one hand and having the duty "to set ourselves" to produce results on the other. However the difference is nicely caught when Ross arrives at the notion that it is intention "in the act" that is at issue. This is a clear attempt to bring together the focus on the action alone (viewed as productive of result) on the one hand or the motive alone (viewed in some sense purely) on the other. And it is a further feature of consequence-sensitivity that some such attempt is needed. So perhaps Stratton-Lake is being far too hasty in suggesting that attention to the situation is too aesthetic an account of the connection between prima facie duties and actual duties. And, perhaps more needs to be filled in on the notion of "intention". 

March for a Secular Europe

If you click on the title of this post you will be directed to details of a march planned in London this Sunday (Valentine's!) to protest against the forthcoming visit of the Pope to the U.K., something that has taken on added urgency after the recent disgraceful capitulation of the government here on the proposed Equality Bill. Anyone who either is or could easily be in London this Sunday should seriously think of attending.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Prima Facie Duties and Moral Reasons

The discussion of W.D. Ross' notion of prima facie duties has clearly brought out that there is quite a bit that is odd in the description of them as "prima facie duties". The oddness at first seems to attach to the description of them as being prima facie when Ross is clear that these duties are not ones that only "appear" to be duties but are, rather, ones that have a real claim upon us even in situations where we find we cannot follow them. That this claim exists appears to be understood by Ross in a rather realist way as part of the account of what exists in the situation. Shortly after writing The Right and the Good Ross returned to the topic of prima facie duty in his next work The Foundations of Ethics

In this later work Ross responds in part to C. D. Broad's view that there is attached to the notions of "right" and "wrong" some sense of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" or, in the language he takes from Samuel Clarke, that there is something of "fitness" attached to what it is that is right. On these grounds Ross describes rightness as involving "the greatest amount of suitability possible in the circumstances". However he still wishes this to be distinguished from anything like a utilitarian notion and rather conceives of moral suitability by an analogy with aesthetic suitability (perhaps with echoes of G.E. Moore in his thoughts). As Ross puts this:

There seems to be something not altogether different from the way in which a situation calls for a certain act, and the way in which one part of a beautiful whole calls for the other parts. Here, as in the case of a right act, there is no question of subserving an extraneous purpose; there is a direct harmony between the parts of the composition, as there is between a moral situation and the act which completes it. (54)

This conception of "harmony" is one that Ross has related to a sense of the whole situation just as the account of prima facie duty in The Right and the Good required. As with the earlier account this still leaves room for a commitment to pluralism:

Our common use of the word 'right' is so fluid that, although what it naturally conveys is simply the notion of fitness or correctness, without implying either that there is only one act or emotion that fits the situation, or that it is in the agent's power to produce the act or emotion in question, yet by usage 'right' is very often treated as equivalent to 'obligatory'. (55)

Some fine questions emerge for Ross concerning the sense of "obligatory" in the sentences that follow but, leaving this aside here, the notion of "right" understood in this way becomes one that leaves open the question of whether there is, as Ross has here said, "only one act or emotion that fits". So what is right (in this new sense of "fitting") may well not be only one act or emotion and what would be right might not even be something we could do but it is still what would, in some way, make the situation harmonious.

Intriguingly, Philip Stratton-Lake , a foremost expert on Ross, is somewhat disturbed by this account of prima facie duties in terms of fittingness which he describes as too aesthetic a notion to account for the relation between prima facie and actual rightness. In making this point Stratton-Lake indicates a wish to find in Ross an account of practical reason as becomes clear when he discusses prima facie duties as "principles of moral salience" that describe which types of consideration are salient in determining whether something should be done or ought not to be done. In understanding  
prima facie duties in this way Stratton-Lake suggests that the real problem with Ross' expression "prima facie duties" rests not, ultimately with the stress on prima facie but instead with the stress on duty. Ross does indicate that the word duty is indeed wrong here when he first introduces the notion of prima facie duty in The Right and the Good stating there such a "duty":

is not in fact a duty, but something related in a special way to duty. (20)

This "special way" is now suggested by Stratton-Lake to be that the principles of prima facie duties provide "normative moral reasons, rather than principles of duty".

This suggests two questions to close this posting on that I will pursue in future ones. Firstly, is Stratton-Lake right to think that the notion of "suitability" or "fittingness" is "too aesthetic" a relation between prima facie duty and actual duty? Secondly, if the principles of prima facie duty are really principles of practical reason rather than principles of duty then how do such principles relate to the Kantian sense of "duty"? This latter question is the one with real bite since it will enable me in future postings to trace out the manner in which Stratton-Lake (and others) postulate a connection between Ross and Kant in contemporary moral theory. 

BHL and Kant

It would appear that Bernard-Henri Levy has been caught out in a very silly error since he has, in print, launched an attack on Kant by means of use of a fictional philosopher who he assumed was real. The full story is in today's copy of The Times and thanks to one of my students for sharing this with me on Twitter today. Levy seems to have believed that there exists a philosopher by the name of Jean-Baptiste Botuli founder of the school known as "Botulism" (what else?). Botuli is the fictive author of a book with the somewhat lovely title The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant though the page on him on Wikipedia states that he is a fake

There are clear comical sides to this whole episode, not least the idea of Levy thinking, even with impeccable sources, that he could seriously venture a view on Kant. However the real problem with the whole thing is that it simply reinforces the usual patronising attitude of Anglo-Americans to the French as can be seen in the comments on this business over at Nigel Warburton's blog and at Leiter Reports. It does, though, perhaps present some good reasons for thinking that if you are going to respond to a major philosopher like Kant that it might be a good idea to do so on the basis of their work rather than secondary texts with ludicrous titles.

Monday, 8 February 2010

W.D. Ross and prima facie duties

In his account of what makes right acts right Ross arrives at the notion of prima facie duty and, as we shall see in subsequent postings, this account is one that has been taken by some recent authors to be worth building in to a revised description of some aspects of Kant's moral theory. Because it has been so adapted it is worth exploring in this posting exactly the motivations for Ross' introduction of it and giving a careful characterisation of the view of such duties that he explicitly presents.

The discussion of these duties occurs early in the second chapter of The Right and the Good. Ross has been expressing dissatisfaction with utilitarianism and its commitment to viewing production of amounts of good as the basis for what makes right acts right (which has been rendered in recent treatments as making the good prior to the right). In opposing this position Ross refers to a "plain man" making a promise because he thinks he ought to do so, a situation that in this case is one that Ross takes to involve no thought of consequences. However, whilst this seems like a simple and direct opposition to the utilitarian position Ross in fact concedes a point to the utilitarian enquiry because he admits that circumstances can so conspire that fulfilling a promise is something that can have very adverse consequences such that we judge it right not to do this. Hence, whilst fulfilment of the promise might well be performed for reasons that have no reference to consequences the action of non-fulfilment of the promise is one that arises in an account in which consequences are taken account of.

Now, examples follow this statement that help to clarify it such as the point that the promise might concern something relatively trivial and non-fulfilment of it might be due to attending to victims of an accident. However, the example is clearly not the real point since its salient characteristic has already been described by including references to consequences so Ross' account appears to have become consequence-sensitive. This doesn't entail for him, though, that the reason for such sensitivity is due to a commitment to bringing about more good in the world. If this is not the reason then there can be a basis for consequence-sensitivity that does not lead one to embrace consequentialism.

It is when considering this point that Ross first introduces the notion of prima facie duties. In the example cited we can balance the duty of fulfilling a promise against a duty of relieving distress but, and here comes the specific mention, this latter notion does not strictly speaking involve thought of a duty but instead of "things that tend to be our duty, or prima facie duties" (18n). This is defined by the notion that there can be circumstances in which something that tends to be a duty can be set against something similar and one or the other of them will, "in the circumstances", tend to be more of a duty.

So the notion of prima facie is introduced as a way of speaking about consequence-sensitivity with the conception being that such sensitivity arises when there would be a conflict between two candidates for a duty to be performed which cannot both be adopted in the circumstances. Ross terms them, not unreasonably, "cases of conscience". This view is summarised neatly in the following statement:

I suggest 'prima facie duty' or 'conditional duty' as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant. (19)

So the prima facie duties are ones that we would, were it not for other intervening factors (involving consequence-sensitivity) simply accept as being duties proper. Since the latter elements have to be taken account of, Ross also describes such prima facie duties as "conditional" duties. Ross' terminology here is awkward as he freely admits since the prima facie duty is, considered simply as a prima facie duty, not yet a duty at all. Further the expression "prima facie" suggests that it may only be a deceptive feature that leads us to think of the "duty" in question as being such whereas this is not Ross' view since he rather takes it that such "duties" include in them factors that render them quite clearly such as to involve a claim upon us (although he also has problems with the word "claim" since this refers mainly to others rather than to ourselves).  The fundamental point about them is that they "rest on a definite circumstance which cannot seriously be held to be without moral significance" (20).

Turning next to the description of what falls under the heading of such "prima facie duties" Ross gives six classes of them. The first group involves duties that arise from previous acts I have committed and this first group is divisible into two classes, basically duties of fidelity and reparation. The second group rest on previous acts of others and are duties of gratitude. With regard to both these first two groups Ross subsequently corrects the way he has described them as they seem to involve motives and he does not wish to suggest we have duties to have certain motives so the disposition to fulfil a promise does not require we adopt a motive to so fulfil it but only that we fulfil it because the promise has been made (and so created an "objective situation" regardless of our motives). Similarly "gratitude" is something that refers to certain acts of ours not the adoption of an emotion of gratitude.

The third class refers to duties of justice with reference here to distribution of pleasure or happiness with regard to merit. The fourth group of duties is duties of beneficence where we attempt to make other peoples situation better. The fifth group is duties of self-improvement and the sixth is non-maleficence towards others.

So what the theory of prima facie duties involves Ross in a commitment to is a pluralism about the right. These different potential grounds of a duty are not equivalent to each other for him or reducible to some other ground that is taken to be more basic (though he does later indicate that he thinks the grounds of beneficence and self-improvement are the same). In moral experience we find the situation to be even more complicated since these prima facie duties are there compounded. This ensures that Ross' account is certainly not tidy:

Every act therefore, viewed in some aspects, will be prima facie right, and viewed in others, prima facie wrong, and right acts can be distinguished from wrong acts only as being those which, of all those possible for the agent in the circumstances, have the greatest balance of prima facie rightness, in those respects in which they are prima facie right, over their prima facie wrongness, in those respects in which they are prima facie wrong...For the estimation of the comparative stringency of these prima facie obligations no general rules can, so far as I can see, be laid down. (41)

 Immediately after making this claim, one that seems to lead towards a strict form of particularism, Ross qualifies it by indicating that duties of "perfect obligation" have a greater stringency and he describes those as the duties of fidelity, reparation and gratitude adding that with the rest the decision "rests with perception". In subsequent postings I want to look at how some contemporary theorists have treated Ross' view of prima facie duties as a means of modifying the Kantian approach to ethics.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

W.D. Ross and Intuitionism

I suggested earlier, when I first introduced the topic of intuitionism, that it would be incorrect to characterise this view of ethics as directly competitive with consequentialism. One of the reasons why it is not is because intuitionism in fact occupies a number of different roles in moral theory. One of those roles is as a form of account of moral knowledge and, indeed, it is its role in this aspect that is most often referred to when people think of intuitionism. In this role, however, it need not be incompatible with consequentialism as is seen in the case of G.E. Moore who adopts an intuitionist view of moral epistemology but whose normative principles embody what is often termed an "ideal utilitarianism". 

Moore's combination of intuitionism with a version of utilitarian normative principles is certainly intriguing though, it has to be said, that his normative principles have been rarely taken that seriously in the history of ethics (despite apparently having some influence on the Bloomsbury Group!). William David Ross is a different kind of character and his work embodies a combination of intuitionist epistemology with an approach to normative principles that is decidedly non-consequentialist. Ross' most famous work is surely The Right and the Good and in this work Ross argues that neither "the right" nor "the good" can be understood in a monistic way.

Essentially Ross distinguishes "the right" from "the good" by indicating that the former concerns what is obligatory and concerning this he departs clearly from consequentialism as when he writes: 

"An act is not right because it, being one thing, produces good results different from itself; it is right because it is in itself the production of a certain state of affairs. Such production is right in itself, apart from any consequence." (pp. 46-7.)

There is, then, as he puts it on page 47, some "intrinsic rightness" attaching to certain types of act due to the nature of these acts regardless of any reference to consequences. So, whatever it is that is "right" is not so judged in terms of anything like the normative principles adopted by Moore. If we next turn to how Ross accounts for "the good" we might then expect that in relation to this we could yet find some kind of admixture such as applied to the case of Moore. However, this is not so. With regard to the property of "goodness" Ross claims that it is objective and intrinsic to the things that are good. These things include virtue, pleasure, the allocation of pleasure to the virtuous, and knowledge, but moral goodness is taken primarily to consist in adoption of a sense of duty (despite the fact that this is not itself something we are "obliged" to adopt on Ross' view of "the right"). Hence the account of moral goodness, like that of rightness, turns away from a consequentialist account and when Ross repudiates assessing rightness in terms of production of consequences he rejects any view of moral goodness that sees the latter as determinative of rightness due to the former being understood in a productive sense. Hence Ross appears to come much closer to the ideal type of deontologist that Broad describes. To this needs to be added a fuller consideration of the way the normative structure of Ross' theory works in relation to acts and rules. This requires, however, a discussion of his account of prima facie duties, a topic that needs a separate posting.

Friday, 5 February 2010

KCL Restructuring Plan Revealed

The full plan from KCL has been leaked. The plan makes clear that a total of 22 full-time equivalent posts in Arts and Humanities are at risk and that "all academic roles" within the School are at risk of redundancy. To have any chance of saving their jobs all members of staff will need to submit a detailed summary of their own role and performance. The plan also makes clear that the following have already been determined: loss of 3 posts as American Studies is closed, Linguistics will be closed with the loss of 4 posts, Paleography will cease as an activity with loss of 1 post, Philosophy will lose 2 posts as Computational Linguistics as an area of philosophy is discontinued, 1 post will be lost in Classics. 

In addition to these positions another 11 are planned for dismissal with the process mentioned above determining who they will be. All staff selected for redundancy will be dismissed by 31st August 2012. Bizarrely, in this blizzard of cuts the strategic plan outlines continuing and increasing investment for the following areas of study: Creativity; Global Politics, Culture and Identity; Digital and Visual Cultures. The plan is like a wreckers' charter and it is to be hoped that wide distribution of it amongst those campaigning against these changes will follow.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Pope, Equality Laws and Secularism

The Pope, in preparation for his planned forthcoming visit to the UK, expected later this year, recently launched a swinging attack on the proposed Equality Bill currently being considered by Parliament. The Bill included provisions suggesting that Church employment of people not engaged in doctrinal duties should be governed by the same non-discrimination rules as affect other areas of employment. This would ensure that there would be no legal basis for religious bodies failing to employ homosexual people in such capacities as that of being gardeners or even youth leaders (where such roles did not involve direct transmission of religious teaching).

In response the Pope made clear his view that such rules violate what he termed "natural law" and that they imposed "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs". When faced with the accusation that such comments amounted to interference in politics the most senior member of the Catholic Church hierarchy in the UK, Archbishop Vincent Nicols stated that the words of the Pope would find an echo amongst those uneasy that the "unintended consequences of recent legislation" would be to "drive religious belief and practice into the sphere of the private only".

When faced with this attack from the Catholic Church the government of the United Kingdom has responded by capitulation. The clause in question had recently been struck out in the House of Lords but it was expected the government would reintroduce it but, in the wake of the Pope's attack on the Bill, it appears to have decided to drop its commitment to equality before the law in employment matters. This situation calls for a number of comments.

Firstly, the suggestion that there is a body of "natural law" that the Catholic Church has access to has, unfortunately, undergone serious revival in recent years, not least in the area of jurisprudence, due to the influence of John Finnis. The suggestion that statute law should be grounded on this view is, to say the least about it, dubious. The view itself was, rightly, cast into oblivion in the post-medieval world where the status of law came instead to be seen as grounded on quite different notions including those of universal rights. To say that the Catholic Church has generally been backward in recognising such a notion would be an understatement and its opposition to the earlier UK legislation requiring adoption agencies that take state money to cater equally to all potential adoptees (including gay people) is well known. The Catholic Church was also one of the leaders in the campaign to prevent the abolition of the notorious Section 28 provision that disallowed "promotion" of homosexuality. So its record has been consistent, consistent that is, with opposition to equal rights provisions.

Secondly, it was certainly not an "unintended" consequence of the Equality Bill to suggest that the right place for religion was a private one. In fact such a general view should be at the basis of all modern states. It is what is generally known as the principle of secularism. Such a principle does not involve the state adopting a view with regard to religion, including one of denying some specific religion. What it does involve is a response to all religions that views them in line with general principles of policy and applies to them the same principles that apply to anything else. This should certainly include the provision of equality rights in the area of employment. The Pope's intervention on this matter was predictable and shows some good reasons for not wishing him to visit the UK at all. A religious leader who consistently makes clear his opposition to the secularist principle in law is not one for whom there is a real home in a modern state. At least this should be the case. The fact the Labour government has capitulated to his intervention demonstrates that they are spineless and incapable of defending the basic principles of liberal democracy. In response to the continuing outbursts of this most illiberal religious leader the National Secular Society of the UK has organised a petition requesting that the cost of the Pope's visit be paid for exclusively by the Catholic Church itself, a cause worthy of support.

For further comment on this matter see the posting over on Pea Soup.

KCL Up-Dates

Since it came to light recently that King's College London is planning to forcibly retire and sack professors of philosophy a campaign protesting these decisions has built up. Students and friends of the Dept. have established a website that includes an open letter that you can go to and sign. There is an additional separate letter available on-line that is also open to signature. Meanwhile, not content with this attack on philosophy, the management of KCL have also decided not to renew the post of Chair in Palaeography there, which was, until recently, the only such position in the UK. To protest against this further act of vandalism see and please sign the petition against this. The combination of these two attacks demonstrate clearly how committed the management of KCL are to maintaining a world-class research base in the UK.

Change Comes to Guinea

After the slaughter carried out in Guinea at the close of last September it appears that change has come to the country. The second in command of the regime has agreed to revert to civilian rule after it was subjected to serious sanctions in the wake of the massacre. For more details see the article in the New York Times.