What do we owe to future generations?

Jeremy asked:

What, if anything, do we owe to future generations? And, far more importantly, WHY?

Answer by Paul Fagan 

In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future and was one of the first international organisations to popularise the term ‘future generations’. This occurred within an explanation of the notion of sustainable development, pithily defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (my italics) (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 43). The United Nations’ guidance would indicate that humanity should adopt a path that preserves the goods that people enjoy today for the enjoyment of future persons. The underlying rationale is that poverty, whether suffered by persons today or tomorrow, is considered to be immoral and should be prevented. Warning that we are using our resources too rapidly, whilst couched in the language of commerce, the  United Nations  advised that we ‘may show profits on the balance sheet of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses’ (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 8).

However, the prospect of considering future generations is fraught with difficulties. One commentator, namely Ernest Partridge, in his article entitled ‘Future Generations’, has provided a slew of arguments which may lead one to reject considering the needs of our descendants (See Dale Jamieson (ed.), 2001, A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 377-389).  For example, future persons do not have rights and cannot as they do not exist. Furthermore, we cannot possibly anticipate who the future people will be as any actions we take now will cause a different set of persons to be born in the future; which logically confounds any planning we may make on their behalf. Additionally, the consideration of future persons forces us to deal with an abstract, unnumbered and undifferentiated concept. Also, the question arises as to who matters more, ourselves or future generations? There seems to be no justification for favouring one generation over another: for instance, if an attempt is made to spread resources evenly over generations, then it might not leave current persons with the resources they need to prosper. Finally, we cannot know where future people will place value, and therefore cannot plan for this: future persons may prefer desert to rainforest and would implore us to act to bequeath this situation. Hence, some may conclude that it is an impossibility to cater for future generations and therefore we should not attempt to do so.

Nevertheless, two strands of reasoning are now provided to demonstrate why, in the minds of some, future persons should be considered.  Firstly, a communitarian may argue that if we are part of an ongoing community, whereby persons alive today link the persons of the past and the future, through concepts such as identity or morality, then it is a natural consequence that the needs of future persons should be anticipated. Furthermore, the argument may be deemed to be strengthened, if past generations have anticipated our own current needs an acted to ensure our wellbeing (Partridge pp. 380-1).

Secondly, a more individualistic argument may be provided by questioning what comprises righteous conduct in the present.  To explain, most people wish to have children and grandchildren, and wish for them to live in decent conditions. Therefore, from a personal viewpoint, the concern for future generations should include our own immediate descendants; and as immediate offspring would wish to procreate and leave decent conditions to their direct descendants, it may be concluded that an ongoing consideration of future generations will perpetuate. Hence, it should not be an unnatural or impossible intuition to consider the needs of future generations for as far as one can anticipate.

Even if one agrees that we should attempt to cater for the needs of future persons, the question of which goods should be bequeathed elicits differing opinions. Often debates focus upon whether ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ forms of sustainable development are preferred. The ‘weak’ variant may be characterised by policies that allow natural goods, such as raw materials, to be converted into man-made goods, such as infrastructure; with the latter good providing an inheritance for future generations. The ‘strong’ variant may be characterised by denying the interchangeability of both types of goods and placing natural goods above any concepts of substitutability: for some, natural goods, such as climate-regulating oceans and rainforests, may be crucial to humanity’s survival and therefore precluded from conversion to man-made goods (See Connelly et al, 2012, Politics and the Environment (Abingdon: Routledge), pp. 238-241; for a more detailed discussion of the differences between the strong and weak variants).

To conclude, the relatively new concept that living persons have the capacity to impinge upon the lives of future individuals has brought forth a notion, via the UN, to refrain from impoverishing future generations because it is morally unacceptable. If the debate was more widely aired, then a consensus may emerge to more formally and more completely answer the questions posed.


Solving Meno’s paradox

Mahmoud asked:

“Socrates: So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps once upon a time you knew, before you met me, but now you certainly look like someone who is ignorant. Nevertheless, I want to put my head together with yours, Meno, so that we can figure out what this thing is.

Meno: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you don’t have the slightest idea what it is? How can you go around looking for something when you don’t know what you are looking for? Even if it’s right in front of your nose, how will you know that’s the thing you didn’t know?” (Meno’s dialogue)

In this dialogue, Meno is presenting Socrates with a fundamental problem in Greek epistemology. Can you characterize the problem presented here? What was Plato’s solution to that problem? Critically discuss one contemporary solution for that paradox.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

A widely accepted view of Meno’s paradox among Plato scholars is that the paradox concerns the acquisition of ‘a priori’ knowledge, that is to say knowledge gained through reasoning rather than through  empirical investigation. Plato encourages this view with his slave boy experiment, where a young lad, ignorant of geometry, is helped in following the steps of a simple geometrical proof. (The original influential article was by Gregory Vlastos — you can look it up.)

In recent times, the paradox has been taken as a challenge to the activity of philosophical analysis. How is it possible that one can give a philosophical analysis of some problematic concept — say ‘free will’ or ‘person’ or ‘knowledge’ — if we don’t already know in some sense what these are? How are you able to judge that the purported analysis is correct or incorrect?

One suggested solution is that we ‘implicitly know’ what a person or what knowledge is, or what it is to have free will. We know this because we are competent speakers of the language. The problem with that is that it assumes that our unexamined notions of these things are broadly correct — ruling out the possibility, say, that no-one has free will, or that there is no such thing as a ‘person’ (impossibility of giving a coherent definition of personal identity — e.g. the influential work of Derek Parfit), or that there is no ‘knowledge’ to be had: philosophical scepticism.

Plato had a different take: these ideas are implicit in us because our soul is ‘akin’ to the Forms (as he states in the Phaedo). As partners in Socratic dialogue, we are helping one another to ‘recollect’ the knowledge which our souls once possessed but have since forgotten.

What did he mean by this?

The idea that Plato had a ‘Theory of Recollection’ is a fairy tale, a travesty of his metaphysical view. Plato is using mythical language which he doesn’t intend to be taken as the strict literal truth. It completely ignores the very special nature of the subject under discussion in the Meno — the nature of virtue.

Virtue is the lynchpin not just of Socrates’ ethical teaching (‘virtue is knowledge’, the ‘unity of the virtues’) but of Plato’s metaphysics. This isn’t some homely discussion of ‘what it is to be a good person’, or how we judge this or that act or person as ‘virtuous’ or ‘unvirtuous’.

“… gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.” (Gorgias 508a)

The question of human virtue is about nothing less than the order of the universe. The ‘cosmos’. Plato and Socrates were not the first to say this: the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus claimed that the cosmos is ruled by Logos which is also the essence of the human soul. In investigating the universe we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul. In investigating the soul, we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul.

The two questions — about the cosmos and the soul — are ultimately one and the same.

To ask about virtue, from Plato’s philosophical standpoint, is to ask the biggest question that there is. There is nothing bigger or more important. How can we possibly hope to make progress, when there is so much that we don’t know? The young aristocrat Meno is quite justifiably baffled. Following the advice of Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato believed that the answer is to ‘look into yourself’. The clue to this whole conundrum is in me, it is in you. We just have to faith that an answer is there to be found through diligent inquiry.

As an illustration of this, Socrates takes a young slave boy, the very last person whom you would expect to be able to conduct a geometrical proof. Even he can do it, he just needs to have the knowledge ‘brought out’. Plato isn’t saying that knowledge of virtue is similar to knowledge of geometry, although as we see in the Gorgias there is a respect in which he thought, like the Pythagoreans, that geometry had something to do with the philosophical question about the nature of the soul and the cosmos. As described in the Republic, the ‘mathematica’ — numbers, triangles etc. — are merely a clue to the nature of the Forms. Yet they remain fundamentally different. Dialectic does not work in the same way as mathematical proof.

The whole of Plato’s philosophy can be seen as a progressive working towards the solution to Socrates’ puzzle about virtue, a conundrum which he never succeeds in solving although of all the thinkers in Western philosophy, his work stands out as one of the greatest attempts to solve it.


Mental sanity

Frem asks:

What do you call ‘mental sanity’? Would anyone dare to answer?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here’s an answer, although I dont feel daring.

“Sanity” means “health” (Latin sanus=healthy) so that “mental sanity” means “mental health”. However,the term is rarely used when speaking of physical health, so that “sanity”/”insanity” refer to mental health/disease (and some physical diseases eg syphilis, can also produce mental disease).

The notion of “insanity” is narrower than “mentally ill” Most mentally ill people are not insane. “Insanity” implies that the disease is bad enough to cause loss of reason, inability to tell right from wrong, and is a term used by lawyers rather than doctors these days, as “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a common defence to a murder charge. Among doctors and nurses, the terms “delirium” and “psychosis” are respectively used for fleeting and persistent loss of reason. Delirium can be due to feverish illness, drugs or alcohol, and psychosis is usually due to schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.

In short, sanity implies mental health, or mental illness insufficient to cause loss of reason. The term is often used loosely to express praise in other contexts (eg sane policies).

There is a tendency for lawyers to extend the insanity defence beyond the conditions I have mentioned, to include, for example, genetic variants known to be associated with aggression, or people with damage to the amygdala causing lack of emotional response to another’s suffering, the “my brain made me do it” defence. One difficulty for the defendant here is that if the defence be accepted, and nothing can be done to change the brain, he is liable to be locked up for at least as long as if he plead guilty.

I wonder if your mention of anyone “daring” to answer, reflects the view that there is no real sanity/insanity distinction, just labelling by the regime in power of their views and those expressed by opponents. It is true that some regimes have labelled troublesome “dissidents” insane and locked them up, and this still goes on. But this is abuse of psychiatry, and shameful activity by doctors involved. It doesnt mean that mental illness is an arbitrary social construct. Tell that to my sister with schizophrenia or my cousin with bipolar disorder whose lives were ruined by their illness, although greatly helped by medication and ECT.


The Brexit Case and modus ponens

Ruth asked:

I’ve been watching the Supreme Court Brexit case and after two days I’m completely confused by all the lawyer-speak. Can you help?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

From what we’ve seen so far, and ignoring all the complications and side issues, it’s safe to say that:

According to the ‘Appellant’ — the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union — the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was intended to ‘hand over’ the decision of whether or not to leave the European Union to the British electorate, requiring no further Parliamentary debate on the question whether to formally commence the process of leaving.

According to the ‘Respondent’ — Miller and Dos Santos who originally won the case against HM Government in the High Court — the force of the Referendum Act could only have been ‘advisory’. A Minister of the Crown does not have the legal right to bring about the repeal of legislation which bears on the rights of British citizens without authorization from Parliament.

What both sides agree on is that the Act didn’t specifically say what should be done in the event of the country voting to leave the EU. This was a banana skin waiting to be stepped on. The Government were confident of winning the Referendum. On a charitable view, they wanted to keep the wording of the Act as simple as possible to avoid having to debate the question of exactly what the process of leaving would involve.

Meanwhile, many members of the public see the question in much simpler, starker terms. Forget about the precise nature of the British Constitution, or the respective roles of Parliament, the Crown and the Judiciary. These issues may be important to resolve but they don’t apply in this case.

Why? Because the European Referendum Act 2015 has a very simple and easy to understand structure, which can be represented in formal logic as a conditional statement:

If A then B.

If the outcome of the Referendum is a vote to Leave (A) then the UK leaves the European Union (B).

What happened? The Government lost the Referendum. The outcome was a vote to Leave.

1. If A then B.

2. A.

3. Therefore, B.

The name of this ancient rule of logic is Modus Ponens.

But how is this supposed to happen? There is a set procedure for leaving — ‘triggering Article 50’ — but the nature of the procedure isn’t important. It’s completely irrelevant. It could just have easily been pressing a red button on the Prime Minister Theresa May’s desk at Number 10 Downing Street. Click, and we’re gone. Any bargaining about future deals can come later. (That wouldn’t be a great idea, but again it isn’t a relevant consideration.)

Then, as both sides are agreed, it would be up to Parliament to pass a ‘Great Repeal Act’ removing EU law from the UK statute books, and clearing up the legislative mess which could possibly take a decade or more.

The excruciatingly simple point is that when Parliament passes an Act which is conditional in nature, it is the job of the executive to implement or not implement the consequence depending on whether the relevant condition is met. It’s got nothing to do with whether or not you think referendums are a good idea, or whether the wishes of the majority ought to be respected, or what should be the limits of the Crown Prerogative.

In passing the 2015 Act, Parliament has already made its decision. It has effectively removed itself from the decision making process in this particular case, regardless of how it may be involved in the future.

Is that the end of the story? Well, no. Because the other side can argue that on this analysis Parliament went wrong in passing this Act with this wording. They effectively surrendered a responsibility that according to the British Constitution they ought not to have surrendered, in the same way — to take an extreme case — as it would be against the British Constitution for Parliament to pass an Act making Theresa May Dictator and permanently dissolving itself.


Dangerous professors and sparing the rod

Kecha asked:

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ — does this view of love correspond to the role of philosophers in society?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I wasn’t going to answer your question, Kecha, because the premise seemed so preposterous. The idea that philosophers are in any position to USE the rod is wishful thinking, at best.

As a parent, you have the power to punish your children as you see fit, although the use of the rod is increasingly frowned upon. There are other punishments available so it’s no great loss. But what can a philosopher do if he or she thinks society needs to be called to account? You can write an article or give a speech. Big deal. The only people watching Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube are those already convinced.

Casting my mind back, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher I can think of who succeeded in making himself truly objectionable, addressing Ban the Bomb rallies in Britain in the 60s. Aged 89, he served seven days in Brixton Prison in 1961 for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’.

I almost forgot, there was Abimael Guzman — currently imprisoned — former philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru. No-one could accuse him of sparing the rod. Or rather the bullet.

To cut a long story short, just a couple of days ago, I started noticing a number of posts on the professional philosophy list Philos-L ‘I Am a Dangerous Professor’, referring to an article by George Yancy in the New York Times, November 30, I Am a Dangerous Professor about his appearance in the Professor Watchlist  run by Turning Point USA.

The organization describes itself as a ‘Student movement for free markets and limited government.’ Rabid Nazis, it’s obvious innit?

Someone suggested that if every professor volunteered to join the watch list, its purpose would be vitiated. Another philosophy professor pointed out that you can’t join the watch list unless a newspaper or magazine has reported something bad about you first. Damn!

The scene at the end of the movie Spartacus comes to mind, with the defeated rebel slaves standing up and taking turns to shout, ‘I am Spartacus!’ So the Romans crucified them all, and a jolly good job too.

Of course, professors have enormous power — over their students. If you are a socialist leaning professor and one of your student writes an essay making an  impeccable case for a conservative or libertarian view of some topic, you are less likely to be impressed. Ditto, if you are a conservative leaning professor marking an essay by a student making a case for socialism. Why be surprised if a group of disgruntled conservative students decide they’ve had enough of what they see as unjust discrimination?

If that’s all it is. In his article, George Yancy mentioned Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The very principles of academic freedom are being threatened. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would (say that) wouldn’t he?’

In truth, the fascists of the left are every bit as repellent as the fascists of the right.

What is NOT fascism? I am not talking about being apolitical. No-one can escape politics. It’s a difficult line to tread. As a teacher, you have to foster and actively encourage disagreement. The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have. But leave your own political convictions at home. Make YouTube videos or write articles for the popular press if that makes you feel better.

If you really want to make a difference, run for office. That’s what Plato would have advised.


Finding your significant other

Issac asked:

What does philosophy say about finding a significant other? Is there such a concept as a soul mate? Is romance something of high priority we should pursue? How does one go about finding a soul mate?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Issac, if you haven’t read it, Plato’s magnificent dialogue Symposium would be a good starting point. You’ve heard of the term ‘Platonic love’? This is where the concept was coined. A man and a woman can enjoy romance and sex, but your truly ‘significant other’ is one with whom you share higher ideals. For the Greeks, it would be another man.

The idea of a ‘soul mate’ derives from Plato’s Symposium.

The reason for reading Plato’s dialogue isn’t anything like ‘Let’s do it like the Greeks,’ although one can totally understand why someone who didn’t know better would see it that way.

For Plato, the highest love is for Sophia. Philo-sophy. The desire for the Truth and the Good (they are ultimately one and the same) is also a desire that you and your beloved can come to see and grasp the ultimate reality of the ‘Forms’.

How does this translate into a modern context? Pair bonding is a natural instinct which human beings have placed on a pinnacle of human achievement. Those who are unlucky never to find their soul mate, or who are prevented by natural circumstance from pursuing romantic love, are pushed towards the margins of society regardless of whatever else they may achieve in life.

And how does this process work out in reality? Badly, in many cases. That in itself is not a reason for deprecating the search for a romantic significant other, but even for those who have a chance to play the mating game, many remain frustrated or disappointed, settling for a domestic arrangement that isn’t too unbearable, or alternatively moving from one partner to the next in the hope of one day finding their ‘one true love’.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, not the Greeks, is to blame for promoting the idea that the highest form of human relationship is a man and a woman who come together in order to procreate and raise a family. The notion that your wife — or your husband — is your one and only ‘significant other’ is a mashup, some would say a grotesque mashup, of Plato and the Bible.

Making the notion of ‘significant other’ gender neutral, liberating though that may be, does nothing to untangle the confusion.

I would argue that the two ideas — Platonic and romantic love — should be kept separate and not confused with one another. Each has its own rewards and satisfactions. Human beings should be able to pursue both, separately, without strain or difficulty.

Your romantic significant other need not be your Platonic significant other.


Negative attitudes to the world

Kenneth asked:

Does there exist a philosophical term for a general “Hate/ disgust for the contemporary society/ modern world”.  I think it’s becoming quite widespread. I would myself like to suggest: Pan-misanthropy.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You clearly dont have in mind, say,  the desperation of ordinary people in contemporary Syria, or those starving to death in poor countries.  Rather, an attitude of people in stable societies who can count on a roof over their heads, clean water  and enough to eat.

I dont think a negative view specifically of the modern world is specially common in philosophers.

Of course, since time immemorial, the older generation has thought the world is going to the dogs, morals are getting lax, respect for elders has gone, violence is on the rise, community spirit is gone etc. This is usually coupled with a rosy view of their young day when we all helped each other and had no need to lock our doors. The word that springs to mind here is “nostalgia”. The facts are against these oldies. All research shows the world to be a safer, more healthy place now than it ever was. If the level of violence, robbery and murder in Oxford was what it was in medieval times or in a typical stone-age society, I’d be frightened to go there for a pub lunch. Never mind disease, early death, oppression and lack of civil liberty in the good old days.

Among philosophers, despair is sometimes expressed, not about the modern world, but about the perennial human condition. Bertrand Russell, reflecting on the vast, empty, purposeless universe and future extinction of the solar system revealed by science, famously said in 1903:

“Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” (‘A Free Man’s Worship’)

Despite this he went on to live a very long enjoyable, productive and interesting life.

Another famously pessimistic philosopher who enjoyed a long and comfortable life was Schopenhauer.

And then we have the existentialists expressing “angst” and “ennui” about the human condition, usually while drinking coffee in upmarket cafes or debating in nicely-furnished drawing rooms.

Existentialist joke:

Scene: family car en route to holiday destination.

Small boy: Dad, Dad! I feel ennui.

Father: Well, I’m not stopping. You should have reconciled yourself to the absurdity of life before we got into the car.

Dont trust philosophers bearing despair. Dont join the panmisanthropists, as you term them. If you feel it coming on, think again. You can make a difference.