Saturday, August 23, 2014

Anscombe Forum on Human Dignity

Conference to be held on March 13-14, 2015, at Neumann University, which is located in Aston, PA, in the greater Philadelphia area. 
The forum is an annual event designed to explore the work of G.E.M. Anscombe and topics in her work that are of continuing importance within the Catholic intellectual tradition.  In March 2014 the forum was initiated with a conference focused on the question of Anscombe's contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition.  The March 2015 Forum will be dedicated to the subject of human dignity.
Featured speakers: Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago; Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University; Duncan Richter, Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Military Institute.
We welcome all contributions on the subject of human dignity and are particularly interested in contributions that engage the work of Anscombe or Peter Geach, or that otherwise engage elements of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  For further information contact Dr. John Mizzoni at  Submissions (full papers only; 20-30 minute reading time) should be emailed no later than December 30, 2014 to  
More information will become available at
Select papers from the conference will be published by Neumann University Press.  
I'm looking forward to this, but being in such distinguished company is a little intimidating. I'd better say something good.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Ludwig Wittgenstein Chair at the University of Veracruz

I'm just about back and ready to catch up on emails, blogging, etc., having been in Mexico as a visiting professor at the University of Veracruz. Every 18 months or so they bring someone in for this position, and the purpose of this post is basically to describe what it involves. Robert Arrington was the first person to occupy the chair, and I was the second. In other words, it's pretty new, so who knows how the position might develop in future. What I can tell you is what I did.

My job was to give a public lecture on a Wittgenstein-related subject to an audience of roughly a hundred people and then to lead a seminar for two hours every day for a week, with between twenty and thirty people (mostly graduate students but also members of the faculty) in the seminar. All of this, apart from the last meeting of the seminar, was recorded, so perhaps it will be available online somewhere sometime. The subject of Winch's The Idea of a Social Science was suggested to me, so my lecture was directly about that book, and the seminar dealt with related topics: Wittgenstein's lecture on ethics (which perhaps is not all that relevant, in fact, but it seemed like a good idea at the time), the first part of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer, selected parts of Winch's book, and Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society."

I speak no Spanish, so language was an issue sometimes, but not a huge problem. More important, I think, was that most people in the audience at both the lecture and the seminar were not philosophers but psychologists and other social scientists. They were certainly interested in Wittgenstein, but particularly in how what he said might relate to social science. And for the most part their idea of the aims of social science is not the same as Winch's. More about this, perhaps, in another post.

What did I get out of it? A lot. It's a real joy to teach students who are genuinely interested in the subject and do not have to be manipulated with carrot and stick to read the assigned material and discuss it. It's also a pleasure to discuss philosophy with people who are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the typical undergraduate. Not just a pleasure but an education too. I also had my expenses covered, so I got a plane ticket there and back, hotel, and meals, plus a car, driver, and interpreter to take me around during the day (the seminars were held in the late afternoon/early evening) to all the best sights in the area. The people there are extremely hospitable and gave me various gifts as well. In short, if you get the chance to do this I highly recommend it.

Sorry if this comes across as bragging but I think I may have been annoyingly obscure about what I've been up to, and I loved it, so it's hard not to talk about it.             

Friday, August 8, 2014


'Consequentialism' and 'utilitarianism' are used pretty much interchangeably these days, but of course Anscombe coined the term 'consequentialism' in order to distinguish the view of Sidgwick and others from utilitarianism. It can be hard to see what difference she saw, so I might get it wrong, so I'll quote what she says:
Let us suppose that a man has a responsibility for the maintenance of some child. Therefore deliberately to withdraw support from it is a bad sort of thing for him to do. It would be bad for him to withdraw its maintenance because he didn't want to maintain it any longer; and also bad for him to withdraw it because by doing so he would, let us say, compel someone else to do something. (We may suppose for the sake of argument that compelling that person to do that thing is in itself quite admirable.) But now he has to choose between doing something disgraceful and going to prison; if he goes to prison, it will follow that he withdraws support from the child. By Sidgwick's doctrine, there is no difference in his responsibility for ceasing to maintain the child, between the case where he does it for its own sake or as a means to some other purpose, and when it happens as a foreseen and unavoidable consequence of his going to prison rather than do something disgraceful. It follows that he must weigh up the relative badness of withdrawing support from the child and of doing the disgraceful thing; and it may easily be that the disgraceful thing is in fact a less vicious action than intentionally withdrawing support from the child would be; if then the fact that withdrawing support from the child is a side effect of his going to prison does not make any difference to his responsibility, this consideration will incline him to do the disgraceful thing; which can still be pretty bad. And of course, once he has started to look at the matter in this light, the only reasonable thing for him to consider will be the consequences and not the intrinsic badness of this or that action. So that, given that he judges reasonably that no great harm will come of it, he can do a much more disgraceful thing than deliberately withdrawing support from the child. And if his calculations turn out in fact wrong, it will appear that he was not responsible for the consequences, because he did not foresee them. For in fact Sidgwick's thesis leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them. Whereas I should contend that a man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; and contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of good actions.

The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences, as far as responsibility is concerned, was not made by Sidgwick in developing any one "method of ethics"; he made this important move on behalf of everybody and just on its own account; and I think it plausible to suggest that this move on the part of Sidgwick explains the difference between old‑fashioned Utilitarianism and that consequentialism, as I name it, which marks him and every English academic moral philosopher since him. By it, the kind of consideration which would formerly have been regarded as a temptation, the kind of consideration urged upon men by wives and flattering friends, was given a status by moral philosophers in their theories.
One difference between consequentialism so understood and old-fashioned Utilitarianism is surely that under consequentialism "you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them." This means that one problem with consequentialism is that it is, in a sense, not consequentialist enough. There is too much scope for failure of imagination (by way of excess or deficiency) to exculpate. Hence, to give some examples, I might not be responsible for killing an innocent man if I genuinely felt (i.e., imagined that I was) mortally threatened by him and did not foresee that he might pose no real threat to my life, and I might not be responsible for plunging a country into violent anarchy if I sincerely expected my invading troops to be greeted as liberators. 

Another difference is that in consequentialism "the kind of consideration which would formerly have been regarded as a temptation [...] was given a status by moral philosophers." We see this in the following quotation from Benny Morris:
Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history. 
He is talking about Israel, but many people in the United States think something like this. Or they think that the annihilation never happened, or it wasn't so bad because those were different times, or it was bad but it's in the past and therefore irrelevant, or they don't think about it at all. Or all of the above. What matters is the evasion of responsibility, not how the evasion is achieved.

But I don't mean to single out Americans. The Khmer Rouge were consequentialists too. Consequentialism is bad, ubiquitous, and not well understood. Philosophers can at least address the last of these. As I see it (going solely by this passage, which is probably a mistake), consequentialism holds (or at least implies) that the goodness or badness of an action depends entirely on the consequences expected by the agent. Whether these consequences are foreseen or intended does not matter. The intrinsic goodness or badness of the action is also irrelevant. And for these reasons consequentialism is doubly bad.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Burry Man

I haven't blogged for a while and probably won't for a week or two because I'm traveling. I don't have much to say right now, either, but here's something that caught my eye. A surprising number of people I follow on Twitter are Scottish and one of them, Ian Rankin, tweeted this story today. According to the BBC:
The Burryman is as he sounds, a man made from burs. Dressed head to toe in the spiked and painful seeds, he parades around Queensferry on the second Friday in August every year. He is accompanied by two aides who help him with his difficult task and a number of other helpers who make up the rest of the entourage. He cannot move his arms to his sides, walk particularly well or even sit down, yet he tours Queensferry for the whole day. The small whiskies the Burryman receives throughout his tour help fortify him in his task and also offers a way for the public to show their gratitude. Even with the pain and discomfort caused by the outfit the Burryman tradition lives on.
The origin of the practice is obscure, but it is at least several hundred years old. One theory has it as a punning celebration of Queensferry becoming a burgh, others as much older and pagan. Not only is the costume painful, it is so hot that it is hard for the man in it not to faint. He is supported by others so he doesn't collapse. But he is also decorated with flowers and the occasion is merry. What would Frazer have made of this? What would Wittgenstein say?

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Of course I don't know, and it doesn't particularly matter. It does, though, seem both an intrinsically interesting case and a good way to try out some of the ideas expressed in Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer. John Nicol (@johnjnicol) was the Burryman for thirteen years and says it baffled him. He also describes the job as an honour and the tradition as a mystery, which he regards as important. I think he's right, and this idea (that the mysteriousness of this kind of customs is part of the reason for their existence) is a Wittgensteinian one. The mystery means we can try out various theories, or rather trot them out, since we have nothing much against which to test them. In doing so we bring what we know about human nature and experience to bear on the facts before us, the phenomenon in question. And then it almost doesn't matter whether our theories are right or wrong. What matters, we might say, is what we recall of human nature and experience, and what we see in the custom itself: individual suffering and sacrifice, hidden (yet obvious) suffering, public and communal celebration, fertility, whisky, and so on. It's almost like a Rorschach test, but not quite. Fascinating, though. And creepy.

Presumably Wittgenstein might object that we should not trot out theories to try to explain the Burry Man. Rather, we just need to set out all the facts in the right way and no explanation will be necessary. (At least he might say that. I don't think he's committed to saying this in every case.) This reminds me of the idea that in ethics there is nothing to be said. But that's something to explore another time.