The Moral Status of a War

 

As the last of the United States’ armed forces withdraw from their prolonged engagement in Iraq, an observer can pause to reflect and consider the moral status of this conflict. Two recent experiences – incredibly trivial though they may be – inform my analysis. Firstly, I happened to chance upon In the Valley of Elah (a 2007 film whose story aims to highlight some of the terrible psychological effects that can result from throwing young individuals into such a conflict) the other day, and I found it quite compelling. Secondly, in a recent philosophy seminar that I was overseeing, a student attempted to raise the war in Iraq as an example that might offer support for a more general point about the validity of a consequentialist justification in moral reasoning; at the time I didn’t have any knowledge of the numbers involved, so I couldn’t say much about the nature of the example as regards a strictly consequentialist calculation. Due to my role, I felt compelled to stay silent at the time, and it left me frustrated.

 

I shall elaborate upon this second instance first. The war in Iraq was mentioned because – so the student asserted – America’s action was a reaction to 9/11, Continue reading “The Moral Status of a War”

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What would it take for you to believe?

Would this be sufficient...?

What would it take for you to believe? It’s an interesting question to put to any atheist, and often the answer can come as quite a surprise…to them. Given that you are aware of the arguments for God’s existence and find them to be un-compelling, which of any of the standard religious experiences would manage to make a believer out of you? A voice from the heavens? “I would probably dismiss that as some sort of audible illusion. Probably thunder, or an airplane, that I’m mishearing and falsely interpreting as a voice.” A direct appearance, before your very eyes, of an angel, or even of God Himself? “Likewise, I’d think I was hallucinating. I’d probably ask myself what I’d eaten that day! Or who had spiked my drink!” What if the apparition came back day after day, and you knew there was no extraneous cause? “Then I’d think that I had gone mad.” Really, the answer is that for many atheists there is simply nothing that they could experience that could convert them from their position. And then they are surprised when they meet the exact same attitude in their theistic opponents!

So, considering this, a sentence caught my eye recently in the abstract for an article on ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ that I happened to stumble across; in talking about the contemporary debate between theists and atheists, “The challenge [for the militant modern atheist] is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.” This is followed by, “Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today.” The author is sensibly responding to the deficiencies of the particular variety of ‘militant modern atheism’, and is pointing out that they need to offer a little more, by way of an incentive to the believer that they wish to persuade to their position, than merely Continue reading “What would it take for you to believe?”

The Authority of Testimony

Whom do you trust?

Of the many potential pieces of knowledge I have gained this week, numbering amongst them are the facts that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for a miracle, and that U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden. These stories are presented to me, and I must somehow decide whether to accept them or not. Enter epistemology.

WARNING: CRACKPOT CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT! On Monday, over a million people crowded the streets of Rome to celebrate and witness the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. One of the requirements for such a beatification is the confirmed attribution of a miracle to the “blessed” one in question. This requirement was satisfactorily fulfilled by the testimony of a nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, who claimed that she had been miraculously cured of Parkinson’s Disease by the supernatural intervention of John Paul’s spirit. Now, denounce me as a sceptic if you wish, but I’m just not sure that this is entirely reliable. Continue reading “The Authority of Testimony”

Sport, Sisyphus, and Schopenhauer

A tumultuous week of sport presents the philosopher with a series of powerfully emotive images. The dizzying highs evident on the faces of the Indian cricket team as each of them realises a life-long dream of winning the world cup, in front of a packed crowd in their nation’s largest city; the terrifying lows of an imploding Rory McIlroy as he throws away the best chance that he’s ever likely to get to win arguably the greatest golfing prize going. We’ve all been there (in life I mean, not leading the Masters with one day to play) – well, most of us anyway – as our dreams and ambitions irrevocably slip away from us. For those lucky enough to have avoided that so far, there remains the undeniable certainty that one day they too will lose everything; in the great hospital of life we are all terminal cases, and one day we all must die!

Sisyphus: The first aspiring weightlifter

How very bleak this is, and no wonder so many philosophers have felt forced to accept a pessimistic outlook. We live, we strive, we fail, and we die. If we cannot find any hope of something beyond death, then it seems that life is indeed reduced to being little more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. That life is meaningless, or essentially comprised of suffering, is not a new idea, but it is one that is rarely eloquently expressed – the finest expression, in my opinion, to be found Continue reading “Sport, Sisyphus, and Schopenhauer”

Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep

This soldier is clearly a regular gamer...

Violent computer games desensitise people to violence. This is normally considered a bad thing, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. Soldiers in a warzone face a situation in which they must encounter extreme violence routinely, and a survey has revealed that playing violent computer games might well help soldiers cope with this prolonged exposure to the extreme violence of war. To be more precise, the survey revealed that soldiers who frequently played computer games that involved war and combat experienced fewer violent dreams, and when these dreams did occur they reported feeling lower levels of fear and aggression compared to their non-gaming colleagues. The gaming soldiers reported feeling more able to “fight back against whatever forces were threatening them” in their nightmares.

It’s not difficult to formulate a plausible theory that would go some way towards explaining this data. Certainly, it seems clear that the desensitising effect of playing computer games could be a contributory factor. It’s quite unremarkable that soldiers who frequently encounter war as a game – albeit in the artificial context of a computer game – subsequently find the actual reality of war less threatening when they encounter it in their dreams. They learn to associate war with a game, perhaps as a game, and as a result their natural inclinations of fear and abhorrence are suppressed. But as a philosopher who possesses a passing, though not-insignificant, level of interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, I wonder if a more interesting explanation and investigation might be available to us… Continue reading “Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep”

The Sacred and the iPhone

Is that an iPhone she has there?!

Since its release, the iPhone has managed to take charge of most of its users’ lives, and now it seems it will take charge of their souls as well. Once a simple device that granted you access to phone calls, text messages, emails, social networking and twitter, the internet, weather forecasts, news and sports results, music, photos, books and other reading materials such as comics and PDFs, simple yet surprisingly addictive gaming, organisational tools such as calendars, notes, lists, and memos, and a wealth of other apps including of course the vital ability to turn your phone screen into a visual representation of a pint of beer which slowly empties as you “drink” it, now the iPhone has ascended to the sacred status of a divinely-endorsed religious tool. Where once the inbuilt google maps (complete with location indicator and integrated compass) enabled the iPhone user to navigate the temporal world trouble free and with contemptuous ease, now “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” – developed by Little iApps and released last week – will enable its user to navigate the inner-world of your conscience, leading you to your desired destination sin free and with, well, perhaps not with contemptuous ease, but at least the iPhone’s functionality has made the journey slightly easier.

“Confession” provides the user with a “personal examination of conscience” that is tailored to each individual penitent. Continue reading “The Sacred and the iPhone”

Extreme Religious Beliefs?

A man was barred from entering the UK this week because he holds “extreme beliefs”. An oversimplification? Well, yes. But it is certainly interesting to look at the story of Pastor Terry Jones, the infamous Qur’an burning provocateur and his recently denied entrance to the UK, from a strictly philosophical point of view.

As I play at being Socrates, let’s begin with the facts. A Home Office spokesman said: “The government opposes extremism in all its forms which is why we have excluded Pastor Terry Jones from the UK.” So Terry Jones – incidentally, a gift of a name for satirists who can manage a Monty Python impression – is denied entrance to the UK because he is an ‘extremist’. What is an extremist? My dictionary (the Oxford English) says: “Extremist: a person who holds extreme political or religious views.” So Terry Jones was denied entry to the UK because he holds extreme political or religious views. We might ask, is it his political or religious views that have condemned him? Richard Dawkins holds extreme religious views, compared to the Archbishop of Canterbury for example, yet Dawkins is welcome in this country (as far as I’m aware…). What is ‘extreme? “Furthest from the centre or a given point” (my dictionary is working hard today), or “far from moderate”. Both of these could be true of Dawkins’ religious views. But there are no cries to deport Dawkins, so Terry Jones’ rejection can’t be simply because of his ‘extreme religious views’. Continue reading “Extreme Religious Beliefs?”