Ethics and potentially harmful foodstuffs

Emmanuel asked:

Invoking ideas from consequentialism non-consequentialism and/or virtue ethnics, what ethical issues are raised by the heart and stroke foundation endorsement of certain foods? Does it matter, ethically, that there is anything left to the buyer beware sentiment when it comes to advertising and endorsement? What are the responsibilities of the consumer to remain informed and vigilant when it comes to consumer issues and advertising marketing rubric?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s endorsement of certain foods would seem to be an educational act to enable people to make sensible life-choices. Now these sorts of choices would be applicable whatever personal philosophy one chose to follow in life; as such, I would consider this to be an act of meta-ethics, being influential upon the vast majority of philosophical schools.

Within any liberal society, all but the most incapacitated or children would expect to keep abreast of the latest information when purchasing the majority of foodstuffs. However, the most damaging foodstuffs would be expected to be prohibited or controlled: for instance, in the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are highly taxed and this is one measure by which their consumption is controlled; other measures include restricting advertising and restricting sales to adults.

With regard to the consumers’ interaction with the world of marketing, in this litigious age, the most erroneous claims may expect to be heard in court; or dismissed by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who may even refrain from buying the product. In the past, a notable confectioner claimed that eating one of its chocolate bars on a daily basis would help one to ‘work, rest and play’. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this type of claim would be unlikely to be made today.

Looking at how differing schools of philosophy may consider potentially harmful foodstuffs, three are briefly noted here; being utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.  The utilitarian, when attempting to maximise utility, by attempting to attain the maximum good for the maximum number of people, may discourage the consumption of the more harmful foods but possibly offer incentives to eat healthy foods. The deontologist may expect to live by a code of conduct, whereby the more harmful foods would not be sold or promoted to persons without their full knowledge of the product; hence, consumers would not be subjected to deceit or become a means to an end for unscrupulous manufacturers. The virtue ethicist would be educated and habituated to consume potentially harmful food on a moderate basis and perhaps a chocolate bar would comprise an occasional treat; in this manner, a virtuous society would collectively regulate their consumption.

It should be noted that the examples here would be expected to minimise potential harm but not ban a foodstuff outright; and this state of affairs may occur when it is realised that most foodstuffs may be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, using the example of a chocolate bar, if one considered chocolate bars to be harmful, because they may contribute to obesity; one should still appreciate that giving a chocolate bar to a starving person may assist that person immeasurably.

To conclude, philosophical schools may provide an ethos to control potentially harmful foods. And it is arguable that in certain western societies, an ethos is needed to control the rise of obesity. For that purpose, an example of controlling foodstuffs is already provided by the restraints placed upon the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Is contradiction an objective reality?

Jamie asked:

Is it possible for contradictions to exist not in our beliefs but in “even though I know its a fuzzy word” our reality? Do the logical absolutes hold true in every world, universe, and existence?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Depends what you mean by ‘reality’!!

It was Karl Popper who argued that contradiction, being a Law of Logic, can only apply to Logic. To maintain there are contradictions in the actual world as Marxists do, was, in Popper’s view, to misappropriate the term and wrongly apply it. Many disagree with this analytic reductionism.

In his philosophy of Absolute Idealism, GWF Hegel maintained that contradictions exist in reality. There is no separation between the human subject and the object, or perceiving agent and the reality beyond it. This epistemological divide stumps empirical thinkers and leaves the reality beyond the subject to endless, inconclusive speculation, to a condition of aporia. For Hegel, there is a mutual interaction, a virtuous circle between the Subject and Object mediated by human consciousness. Further, the three Laws of Logic (Identity, Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle) cannot account for change or movement in phenomena.

For Hegel, contradictions in reality are real. They are recognised and overcome by the collective consciousness of a people (Geist) which is simultaneously, the historical progress of Reason and Freedom. This movement is central to Hegel’s philosophy, for he wishes to present human history as the dialectical movement of the Concept recognising tensions, or contradictions by means of Dialectical or Negative Reason. The contradictions are superseded (aufgehoben) by Positive, Speculative Reason and a new, higher level of Unity is thereby established until new contradictions arise. So for Hegel, yes, contradictions exist in a shared, intersubjective or phenomenological reality. There is no division between Subject and Object, as there is for empirical, analytical philosophy.

However, Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, as the odyssey of human consciousness, has been criticised as being precisely continuing Subjectivism and antropocentrism — which he ostensibly tried to overcome. Thought remains trapped in Thought so Humanity continues to create the world in its own image, yet the world may be different. In which case, any claim to objective, universal truth remains questionable.

Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’

Russell asked:

I am trying to do an analysis on the dualist essay of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was wondering if there are any tips to better understanding the large work? Depending on who sees this, Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Russell, Being and Nothingness is a difficult but rewarding read. The central issue for Sartre, is human Freedom. To explore this, he undertakes a phenomenological analyses of human ontology — what it is actually like to be a human being, being in the world. It is examining how the phenomena of the world (including ourselves) disclose themselves to us and how we interact, respond to them.

Unlike Descartes, who stands apart from the world to dispassionately ponders the existence of the world of objects to ask ‘What can I know? Or unlike a scientist who limits being to the quantitative measurements of things; for Existentialists, we are already in the world, living and practising many modes or ways of being in the world, of interacting with ourselves, others, objects and things. These are not limited to the reductive view that there are just objects in space and time but account for actual, lived human existence. It is these modes of being or structures that Sartre examines with a reference to human Freedom.

Unlike unconscious, inert things (a condition which Sartre terms Being-In-Itself), humans exist in a condition of Being-for-Itself. In other words, we possess Consciousness. This makes us distinct from ourselves, others and from objects. We can think about thinking, we can think about our actions, we are distinct from ourselves. In the jargon, we can ‘transcend facticity’. We are, an issue for ourself. My Being can be an issue for me — hence we are a Being-for-Itself.

Here arises an important point. If my Being can become an issue for me, I am not identical with it. I’m not in a condition of Being in Itself. I can transcend and thereby reflect upon my being. What is it that transcends? It is consciousness. But consciousness is not a thing, it is a Nothing. By so breaking with Being, Nothingness emerges.

Nothingness is at the heart of Being, there is an interplay between the two — hence the book title. Nothingness can arise in the world in many ways. It can arise from disappointment, from failure, from negations, from emotions and so on. Sartre gives the famous example of waiting in a café for his friend Pierre to arrive. Pierre fails to arrive and the café melts into disappointment, melts into Nothingness. We do experience Nothingness, it is a lived experience and phenomena. It is, as mentioned above, an existential structure of human being in the world.

With respect to ourselves, the existence of Nothingness in relation to consciousness guarantees Freedom. In so reflecting upon or transcending myself, objects etc, I am not identical with them. If not identical with them, I am distinct and free from them. Hence my Freedom emerges and this, is central to Sartre’s Existentialism. Existentialism is the philosophy of Human Freedom.

Yet, people can deny their Freedom by living in what Sartre terms ‘Bad Faith’. Here, the existence of Freedom, of Transcendence is denied or ignored. People conclude that they are their job, their occupation, their ‘nature’, their wealth and nothing else. (see the example of the Café Waiter). People in Bad Faith declare ‘I am what I am’ and cannot change. This, according to Sartre, is to ignore or wilfully deceive oneself to the phenomenological structures of human being — that there is Being and Nothingness.

Hope this is useful Russell.

Philosophy as eschatology

Joshua asked:

Sir, I will like to know what it will look like when at the end of the world, we got to know that none of the religions is the way to salvation, but rather something else? I mean not Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism or the others? Isn’t that a possibility?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Yes, Joshua, in answer to your question it is indeed possible that no existing religion, nor any that is yet to exist, is the way to salvation.

There are many scenarios for the ‘end of the world’, but unfortunately in most if not all it will be too late to find out which way was the true ‘way to salvation’ because the human race will be long gone.

Salvation is a peculiarly Christian concept. Even if you are a sinner you can still be ‘saved’ if you ‘repent’ and acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only ‘way’ to God. The concept of salvation presupposes the doctrine of original sin. We all need to be saved because we are all sinners.

However, there is a way of understanding salvation in a broader sense. Human beings are finite and imperfect. There is happiness and fulfilment to be had in this life but also much suffering, some of which we cannot avoid but much that we bring on ourselves — through stupidity, negligence, cowardice, venality and all the other habitual failings of the human mind and character.

The great tradition of Stoicism, which traces back to the eminent example of the philosopher Socrates, is one example of a philosophical school offering an ‘eschatology’ or way to salvation through reason and mindfulness, as an alternative to the dogmatism of the religious faith. Stoics understand the meaning of the seeming paradox that a ‘good man can be happy on the rack.’ For the true Stoic, so long as you tread the narrow path of Socratic virtue, nothing truly bad can happen to you. ‘It is worse to do evil than to suffer it,’ said Socrates.

Most important of all, the true Stoic does not fear death. As Epicurus remarked, ‘Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.’ By contrast, the exaggerated promises of religion trade on the fear of death and what might come after. There is no crime so great that it cannot be committed in the name of religion for the sake of eternal reward, no human achievement so worthy that it cannot be punished by eternal damnation for defying the ‘will of God’.

You have to laugh. Because otherwise you would give up this life in despair. Ridicule is the best response to the claims of religion.

Looking to the way of the philosopher, it has to be said that the hard road of Stoicism is not for everyone. However, as a recipe for self-improvement, there is nothing better than the study of philosophy. Philosophy won’t protect you from the worse that can happen to you, but it can at least save you from mendacious, mind-poisoning ideologies — and not just those of the various religious ‘faiths’.

Ouroboros, birth and death

Betty asked:

Hello! I am a philosophical Luddite so please excuse my lack of correct language or whatever…

I’ve been doing some rather tangential research for an art project and I keep hitting things like — the cosmic egg and Phanes, Ouroboros, cosmological pessimism, anthropocentrism etc. This had led to me to marvel at the idea that, the two most solid truths for an anthropocene are Birth and Death, conversely, the two most popular unanswered queries when investigating the cosmos or non-human existence is; the Big Bang and the Black Hole. I’m interested in the symmetry and wondering if there is a particular tract of study that examines these things as a unity of opposites or sumfin sumfin? I’m not sure if this makes sense…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion of a ‘unity of opposites’ first appeared in Presocratic philosophy with the thinker Heraclitus. Hegel’s dialectic is distantly inspired by Heraclitus, and in turn inspired Marx’s dialectical materialism and — possibly most interesting from your point of view — the Dialectics of Nature (1883) of Friedrich Engels. That may be what you are looking for.

I’m not really into that stuff (dialectics, dialectical logic etc.) but like you I do see the idea of a birth and death of the Cosmos, and the birth and death of the individual as being linked, although I wouldn’t use the term ‘identity’ or ‘unity’.

Whatever else you say or believe about it, the Cosmos, our ‘universe’, is contingent. The idea of a ‘beginning in time’ as this is normally conceived may be a red herring (if time comes into existence along with the Cosmos, see Hawking A Brief History of Time) but two things we do know are that: (1) assuming a Big Bang, there is the contingent possibility if not the necessity of a Big Crunch (or ‘Black Hole’ as you call it), (2) the Big Bang could have banged differently, it is a contingent fact that it banged in exactly the way it did — in order to produce this Earth, your question, my answer etc. etc.

For anyone with a sense of reality, contingency is anathema. Einstein, commenting on Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, famously said that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. Whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be intrinsically random. That, in essence, is the motivation for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

As an atheist, I’m not the least bit tempted by the God theory. But nor do I think that Einstein was necessarily appealing to the existence of God when he made his comment. Even if he was a believer, that was not the point. Einstein was expressing an intuition: the intuition that whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be contingent and must be necessary.

According to the God theory, this universe is necessary because, in the words of the philosopher Leibniz, it is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good could not have created any other universe than the one He did create. On the no-God theory, the only candidate I can see for a ‘necessary universe’ is the sum total of all possible worlds. All possible worlds are equally real, and this world of ours is just one of the uncountably many possible worlds. (See David Lewis On the Plurality of Worlds.)

Problem is, that doesn’t get us off the hook of contingency. And this is where you and I come in. Your existence is an extraordinary, fantastic accident. As is mine. Even if we assume the extraordinary accident that a habitable planet came into being and moreover life evolved eventually leading to the evolution of homo sapiens, the fact remains that in order for you or I to have been born, our parents had to meet — and their parents had to meet, and their parents and their parents all the way back to the emergence of life itself.

But here you are! and here I am!

If all possible worlds are real, one might well come to the conclusion that someone exactly like me — someone satisfying the totality of descriptions that apply to me — had to exist in some possible world. But why did I have to be that person? Why is there I in the world, rather than no I? That question is impossible to answer — or even coherently express — because I am the very one asking it.

What do you or I know about reality or ‘necessary existence’? I know that I exist, and whatever ways the world might have been (whatever possible worlds exist) this world is the actual world because I am in it. Full stop. And you can say the same. We are unutterably contingent, you and I. There is no link back to what is ultimately necessary, no possible explanation why there is I rather than no I, or you rather than no you.

Being contingent, there is nothing to prevent this universe, the actual world, coming to an end. And the same applies to you and me. Whatever discoveries may be made in the future that lead to the extension of human life, possibly its indefinite extension, you and I will die. Maybe sooner, maybe later.

But if you really think about it, the fact that you were born at all is as scary as the fact that you are going to die. Your two states of non-existence — before birth and after death — are indeed ‘the same’.

The mythical creature Ouroboros is a powerful, pungent image of self-sufficiency, the idea of a being that is not dependent on anything outside itself. It is, perhaps, the first or at least one of the earliest depictions of a neccessary being. It is also the stark opposite of what you and I are. We are fragile, contingent, dependent on external conditions, utterly unnecessary. There is no reason why we are here, just as there is no reason why our world is the way it is.

Learning to deal with that realization is the beginning of philosophy.