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The European Union, Peace, and Brexit

A Shift to Isolationism in Britain and Germany Would Spell Danger for Eastern Europe

The World Wars, historian Paul W. Schroeder argues, were both “about a similar two-sided German problem”. In the West, Germany’s rise threatened “the Atlantic world”. It was, however, to the East of Germany, Schroeder claims, where the major fault lines lied: conflict “grew essentially out of a fundamental breakdown of relationships in central and Eastern Europe”.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union (EU) has been instrumental in keeping diplomatic relationships in central and Eastern Europe in relatively good shape. By gradually integrating more former Soviet satellites into the wider European economic and political bloc, EU leaders have ensured that individual member-states have more reason to support each other. This is especially important for newly independent Eastern European states. In the inter-war period, many of these states were left isolated by the rest of Europe. They hence became easy prey for Germany and the Soviet Union. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the security of other Eastern European states has started to appear fragile again. Now is the time for the EU to really prove its worth. Its leaders must ensure that the mistake of abandoning Eastern Europe, which led to catastrophe in the 1930s, is not repeated.

With this in mind, it is highly troubling to learn that approximately 57% of Germans do not think German soldiers should stand in defence of Poland or the Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack, according to a survey conducted by the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftlung in March. As The Economist reported in 2014 (“A New Ostpolitik”, 29th November 2014), many prominent German Social Democrat (SPD) politicians favour a foreign-policy realignment, to the tune of appeasement of Putin. In calling for retroactive recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea by international law, to make it “acceptable for all”, former SPD leader Matthias Platzcek betrayed a disregard for the rights of Eastern European states that harks back to the isolationism of the inter-war years.

Germany, then, lies at a strategic fork in the road. One path is to continue the anti-Putin line currently pursued by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The alternative is to appease Putin; relaxing German commitments to support the territorial integrity of the states between Germany and Russia (notwithstanding Germany’s obligations as an EU and NATO member). The latter would mark a radical change of course, but would apparently enjoy considerable public support. The danger is that it would be a significant step back towards volatility in Eastern Europe, disturbing old fault lines that are better left to heal.

British voters considering their decision for the imminent EU referendum should pay close attention to these developments. Whether the United Kingdom remains in the EU is bound to significantly affect Berlin’s deliberations about Russia and Eastern Europe. As an EU member, tied to Eastern member-states economically, and open to European migrants, Britain has an abundantly clear interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. Out of the EU, this is not so transparent. British leaders may be tempted to revert to the traditional policy of isolationism. In consequence, the cost for Germany of maintaining Merkel’s policy will increase. If Berlin is less able to count on British support in standing against Putin, it will be all the more tempting to appease him instead. United, the EU presents a formidable barrier against Russian expansionism. Divided, it might just succumb to it. This amounts to one of the strongest reasons for Britons to vote “Remain” on 23rd June.

Paul W. Schroeder, “The Lights That Failed, and Those Never Lit”, International History Review Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 119-126.

A Philosophical Explanation of my Conversion to Catholicism, Part 1

Philosophy has been important to my personal life, since it was in large part for philosophical reasons that I turned away from atheism and converted to Catholicism. Insofar as people who know me are unaware of the nature of the philosophical issues and thoughts that have interested me, there is an important part of my recent history and my current identity which must be at least somewhat mysterious to them. This is unfortunate, and it would be nice to remedy the situation.

Another problem is that many people consider religious belief and conversion to involve some kind of subjective, irrational leap of faith. In my case, though, I tried as much as I could to avoid any such thing. I also want to explain that I did not convert because of a sudden change in my attitude or personality, but instead that I came to believe that theism, and Catholicism in particular, provided a more coherent framework in which to accommodate many of the views that I already had as an atheist (especially moral views).

So, I have resolved to write a number of posts which I call a philosophical explanation of my conversion to Catholicism.

I mentioned above that I attempted to avoid making my decision on the basis of subjective or irrational considerations. Indeed throughout the entire process, from the beginning of my questioning my atheism to my confirmation, I tried to base my decisions on rational grounds. But since this was the basis of my approach, it itself stands in need of scrutiny. Thus two questions are raised: A) is it right to follow rational grounds when it comes to questions about religious belief, and B) how do we tell what “rational grounds” are?

In the remainder of this post I will try to answer question A, arguing that one should always attempt to base one’s beliefs on rational grounds.

Various philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and, more recently, Alvin Plantinga, have disagreed with me on this point. But I believe that to some extent all these philosophers have put question A in the wrong category. The question is essentially a moral one. The question is whether it is morally problematic to believe without rational grounds. If it is not morally problematic, then why should we care about whether people have rational grounds or not? But the above-mentioned philosophers do not, to my knowledge predominantly address the moral aspects of this question.

Modern philosophers are sometimes (justly) critical of appeals to “moral reasons”. This is largely because in some modern ethical traditions, such as Kantianism, morality is presented in such a way that it becomes a kind of “optional extra” which is often irrelevant to practical interests and concerns. Thus Kant infamously rules out acting in certain ways in any circumstances on moral grounds, even in situations where acting in the purportedly morally prohibited way would appear to have much better consequences. As well as this, modern moral philosophy is dominated by consideration of cases of emergencies, e.g. where we can divert a train carriage so that it kills 1 person instead of 5.[1] (My objection to this approach is that philosophers start with the hard cases before working out what they ought to do in easy cases). All this gives the impression that morality is something which applies only in special cases, rather than in everyday life.

I believe that this conception of the ethical is fundamentally damaging and wrong, and this is not the sense in which I shall be using the words “moral” and “ethical”.  I have found Aquinas’ approach to ethical matters to be much more useful and realistic.

Aquinas begins his account of ethics (the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologica) by noting that every human being has certain goals. To some of these goals we may attach mere instrumental value – they are valuable only because they help attain something else – but some of them we must attach genuine value to. The reason for this is that otherwise we would be unable to answer the question: “why are you doing something, rather than nothing?” As Aquinas says, we act because we intend to achieve something, and we choose to strive towards this because we think that achieving whatever that is will be better than not achieving it.

It has been suggested to me that Aquinas’ argument is mistaken, because there could be a person who is indifferent about everything, but decides to act (to do something rather than nothing) on a completely arbitrary basis. But arbitrary can mean either “based on the will or inclination of the person involved” or “random”. If we take it to mean the former, then the person acts because they want to, and hence we can say that they attach a certain value to doing what they want over doing what they do not want. If we take it to mean the latter, then I would call into question whether it is humanly possible to make every single decision on a completely random basis. Secondly, if somebody did manage to do this, then they would attach a certain value to acting randomly over not acting randomly. Hence, you cannot escape attaching value to something or other.

What this means is that we all have our goals, and when we have our goals, we are also in need of strategies to achieve them. For Aquinas, ethics has two tasks: to tell us which goals we should have, and to give us the best strategy for achieving them. On this way of looking at things, ethics cannot be sidelined or irrelevant; it is, rather, heavily related to our everyday practices and to our goals and our (prospects of) happiness.

From this we can see why question A is a moral one. The strategy of attempting to justify one’s beliefs as best as one can differs from the strategy which says that we can neglect that attempt, at least in some areas. Which strategy is better?

Here is the problem for the second strategy. Beliefs which are not supported by reason or evidence are more likely to fail to accord with how the world is. For example, if somebody asks me to count the number of chairs in a room, and I guess a number without having looked in the room recently, then in all likelihood the response I will give to the enquirer will be false. If they trust me, then they will form the belief that x chairs are in the room, when in fact (say) there are not x chairs in the room. This is an example of a belief that fails to accord with how the world is. We categorize beliefs which do not accord with how the world is in this direct way (i.e. the belief says something which just isn’t the case) as false.[2]

Recall that we all have our goals to pursue; goals which we think there is some intrinsic value in achieving, and that we need strategies to reach these goals. It is not easy to reach our goals and be happy, so we need a plan. This is where beliefs come in. We do not just have one strategy, but many strategies, most of which relate to shorter-term goals, but which are designed with our ideal goals in mind. When constructing these strategies, our beliefs are the raw material. Going back to the chair example: on the basis of coming to believe there are x chairs in the room, we will then continue to act and plan on the basis of our belief (e.g. by deciding whether to fetch more chairs or not). If our belief is false, this is likely to have the result that we will not take the appropriate action; either we won’t have enough chairs for everybody or we will waste time fetching more chairs.

False beliefs hence need to be guarded against. If we scale up from trivial examples, we can see that the more false beliefs one has, the more likely it is for one’s strategies to fail. A good strategy takes us from being in a starting state S to an end state E. If we know the nature of S, then sound knowledge of which actions are likely to cause certain outcomes can give us what we need to take us from S to E. But if we have false beliefs, then we may lack not only in this vital causal knowledge, but in knowledge of the state we are currently in. If we misperceive S, then we may end up constructing a strategy which would be effective in taking us from S to E, but since we are not in S, it will be useless to us. Unless we are very lucky, or our estimate of our own situation was not very far off, we will not end up at E. As E is our ethical goal, guarding against false beliefs is ethically imperative.

Beliefs can be bad in ways other than being false, as in the number of chairs example. For example, a bad idea can also be misconceived (based on a misunderstanding of one of the concepts which constitutes the belief). Misconceptions are especially pernicious because they can lead us to either i) nonsensical beliefs or ii) interpret a piece of evidence is an unhelpful, wrong by applying a bad concept to it. For instance, if I wrongly thought tables to be types of chairs, the answer I would give in the above case would more likely be wrong. We can see that misconceptions, too, could give us a bad understanding of S, E, or of how to get from S to E. Hence, we have a very strong moral reason to avoid them.

It is obvious enough to anybody that having mistaken beliefs about matters of commonplace empirical fact needs to be avoided. But I used the number of chairs example simply for ease of exposition. The more important question for my purposes here is whether there is good reason for thinking that religious beliefs are also of the kind which we must take measures to ensure are not false. I have been informed that some religious people claim that even if their religious beliefs turned out to be false (e.g. God did not exist), they would still continue adhering to their religious way of life, since it simply happens to be, in their view, the best way of living, regardless.

I am happy to accommodate the view that many religious practices, such as taking time for reflection and personal thought in prayer and charity, are ethically good, useful and constructive. There is hence a grain of truth in the objection. Nevertheless, I do not think that religious beliefs escape the moral argument for trying to make sure that one’s beliefs are justified, for the following reasons.

An initial point is that religious beliefs are always connected with one’s moral beliefs, and in particular for our purposes we can see here that a religious believer will have a somewhat different conception of E to an atheist or agnostic. This is because the ultimate end that religious people believers pursue will surely have something to do with standing in a certain relationship with God. But if God does not exist, then their goal, E, will be impossible to achieve. It just seems intrinsically bad to live with one’s primary goal being something which is in fact impossible, because it will lead to inevitable frustration. This, however, is a minor point, and I want my argument here to be accessible to persons who have very different conceptions of E.

The more serious point is that religious belief must have a significant effect on our assessment of S, the state we (collectively) are in. For example, if I believe God exists and is benevolent, there is good reason to expect that God will, in the long term at least, do what is best for us. Then suppose we reason to the belief that what is best for us is to have an eternal life. Then we conclude on this basis that we will have an eternal life. Our perception of the state we are in would thus be radically changed, since Earthly death is no longer the end, in this view. I believe that this is bound to have some effect on our moral reasoning, particularly concerning questions of life and death. My detailed reasons for believing this will be explained in a later section of this project. But it should be clear enough that our view on whether there is an afterlife affects our view of the state we are in and hence affects our planning. For example, a Christian friend of mine is of the belief that if he was in an emergency situation where he could save the life either of an atheist friend or a pious Christian friend but not both, he should save the atheist because if the atheist died, they would not go to heaven, but the Christian would.

Another example of how religious beliefs affect our perception of S is that the religious person holds that one important feature of S is that we bear some relationship to God. If we bear a relationship with God, then, one might say, we need to sustain and nourish that relationship through an active prayer life focusing on communicating with God. But if God does not exist, then while it may be useful to reflect in quiet, the time of the prayer that focuses on God would have been better spent focused on some worldly matter more relevant to genuine ethical concerns.

A final point is that most religious believers think that certain persons and texts should be treated as having special authority (though not necessarily complete authority) due to divine significance. If, however, God does not exist, then there is absolutely no reason to grant such authority. If we give views of certain persons or texts a special authority, this will affect our other beliefs about S, E, and how to get from S to E, even if for no other reason than that it leads us to spend less time investigating alternative belief systems.

The examples I have given of how religious beliefs could affect our views of S will not apply to every religion, or every possible kind of religious belief. They are instead being used as illustrations of how religious beliefs will affect S. If anybody has some counterexamples of religious belief systems which do not affect S in a similar way, I would be interested to hear of them, but I must say I find it difficult to conceive of such possibilities.

Before concluding, I need to consider a final and important objection to my response to question A. It might be thought that by insisting on taking a rational approach to religious belief and its justification, I am thereby beginning my project with a methodology that is bound to distort the proper nature of religious belief and experience, and therefore lead me either to scepticism or to a narrow, impoverished vision of theism. This line of objection is motivated by the thought that an emotional response to experience of life is an important aspect of what it is to have faith. This part I agree with. What I disagree with is the next premise that this objector would need to make that claim incompatible with my argument, namely that my approach lacks the tools to take emotional experience into account. It is easy for me to maintain that while defence of religious doctrines must in part based on rational argument, for the reasons discussed above, rational argument is not the only tool that I will need for my explanation of my decision to convert to Catholicism. Moreover, I reject the idea that rationality and emotionality are separate spheres, which have nothing to say to each other. On my view it is rational to love, and it would be a mistake to think that either love or rationality is somehow more fundamental than the other. My reasons for thinking this will be made clear in the next section, in which I treat of the nature of rationality (answering question B).

I take it I have established that the strategy of attempting to ensure that one’s beliefs are justified is considerably more ethically satisfactory than the alternative. False or misconceived beliefs interfere with one’s strategies for attaining goodness and happiness, and so they must be guarded against. For this reason I disagree with Plantinga’s view that the religious believer does not need to produce evidence which favours her beliefs in order for them to be justified.[3] The rightness of my decision to convert hence lives or dies with the success or failure of the arguments I will put forth in the following sections. Before presenting those arguments, however, I need to further elucidate and justify my method by considering the nature of rationality itself.

[1] Cf. David Wiggins, “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”, 1988.

[2] I am not hereby subscribing to what is called the “correspondence theory of truth”. I concur with Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is not equivalent to some object which the word stands for. My conception of accordance here does not mean correspondence in any direct sense. But there is an important sense in which the belief “2+2=5” does not accord with reality, simply because if we go about things with the view that if we add 2 objects to a group of 2 thinking that there will be 5, our ideas about what to expect will consistently be frustrated by how things turn out. I am not thereby committed to the view that mathematics (or any other branch of knowledge) is “mind-independent”, or that true mathematical statements represent states of affairs, only that how the world is has some bearing on the justification of such beliefs. For more explanation of my position here, see my essay “Objectivity and Subjectivity” recently published on my blog.

[3] Alvin Plantinga, “Warranted Christian Belief”, 2000.

Supplementary Post on Nationalism

Recently I posted the following article on The Human Writes blog:

The purpose of this post is to address some questions which people have asked me about what I said in that article.

Although I continue to maintain that the argument in the Human Writes post is sound and the conclusion (that we should reject nationalism) is correct, its subject matter is very tricky. For the sake of brevity, I had to bypass some difficult debates in that post. But I am keen to explore the issues further, and if any reader has other questions or criticisms on this subject, I will be happy to address them at length.

The question which I have been asked is: what about cases where nationalism functions or could function as a means of liberating oppressed people, e.g. victims of colonization, the Palestinians, etc. ?

This amounts to an objection to the argument I made in my original post, I think, for the following reasons. Although my argument against nationalism is philosophical, and hence theoretical in character, it is intended to have practical applications and political significance. If anti-nationalist principles have repugnant consequences, such as denying subjugated groups the means to fight, then they are morally faulty. This is not to assume consequentialism. I merely assume that consequences are important when it comes to evaluating moral principles and arguments.

Michael Walzer has made a similar argument against my position. Anti-nationalism is all well and good for those lucky few who live in peaceful regions with mature nation-states, such as Europe, but what about those such as the Kurds, self-conceived “national” groups who face persecution from many sides and whose security could be drastically enhanced by the creation of a national state?

Here is my response to the objection. An anti-nationalist necessarily advocates the end of the nation-state system at some stage, but not necessarily immediately. Just as a Marxist can consistently accept that for pragmatic reasons, capitalist policies are necessary for a temporary period before the revolution, likewise the anti-nationalist can accept that, occasionally, decisions that look very much like outright (principled) nationalist ones can be best in certain situations.

We live in a nationalist world and so on occasion there will not be much choice but to fight fire with fire, and answer nationalist aggression with moves such as creating new nation-states for oppressed nations and asserting the importance of respecting a nation-state’s sovereignty (e.g. during the diplomatic response to Nazism). In some situations doing this will actually be good for the welfare of humanity generally (which is the priority for the anti-nationalist). But anti-nationalism remains distinct from nationalism when it comes to the foreign policy advice it counsels, because for the anti-nationalist such measures are mere means, and temporary ones at that, rather than ends in themselves.

The difference between nationalists and anti-nationalists becomes clear in cases where foreign policy makers have room for manoevre. In times of war, aggression or oppression the range of strategies which have acceptable consequences is likely to be small, and it will be hard to deviate much from the status quo. But in times of peace and prosperity, there is much more freedom to move away from nation-state institutions (e.g. Europe post-1945).

On top of that, if as anti-nationalists we agree that the moral priority is the welfare of all and that certain groups are not more valuable than others, then there may be cases where certain practical solutions in extreme cases which will look palatable to us which do not look palatable to the nationalist. There are cases where one group is so oppressed that it needs priority from others so that it will be safe, but this will partly be because if that group’s suffering is left unaddressed then that will constitute serious harm not just to that group but to the rest of humanity too – from the anti-nationalist perspective, everybody’s interests are strongly connected.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

Few terms carry as much authority in debate as “objective” and “subjective”.

The latter is often used (consciously or otherwise) to shut down debate by giving the impression that there are no impartial standards for the rightness or wrongness of a principle. For example, aesthetic and ethical matters are frequently said to be “subjective”. Often, an assertion that a certain matter is subjective ends an argument. For example, I recently had a debate about how we might distinguish between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. I suggested that appropriation is where an outsider makes use of a feature of a culture for their own purposes, whereas exchange involves some aspect of learning about, respecting and adopting the purposes of the feature in the relevant culture. In retort, I was told that the entire matter was “subjective and therefore fraught with difficulty”. My interlocutor did not explain the source of the difficulty. He seemed to think that merely labelling the issue as subjective was sufficient to undermine my claim.

Conversely, the label “objective” is often used in an attempt to make something immune from criticism. The most common usages of this term are attempts to defend science, some particular piece of scientific evidence or practice, certain moral principles or rules, and mathematics.

I suggest that the authority generally invested in these terms is false, and that their popularity is due to a misleading philosophical idea, which is a serious obstacle to intellectual progress.

What exactly does it mean to say that a matter is subjective or objective?

That is a difficult question to answer and it is not, to my knowledge, one which has been given a great deal of attention. That itself is some evidence to believe that when we use these terms we are in thrall to certain assumptions, which have enjoyed great influence over our way of thinking and arguing without our noticing them. If that thought is correct, then by attacking the authority of the terms “objective” and “subjective” we are also challenging these assumptions.

The best explanation I have been able to come up with of the meaning of objectivity and subjectivity, as those words are generally used, is the following: something is objective if it is true or false mind-independently. Something is subjective if it is true or false mind-dependently.

A mind-independent truth remains true regardless of what anybody thinks or feels about it. It is therefore, presumably, made true by how the world is – that is, how the world is outside of the “mental sphere”. Thus we say that a scientific truth is objective because we believe it is a truth about the world external to us. “The laws of gravity will continue to operate even if nobody believes that they will, or if no person even existed.”

By contrast, the truth or falsity of aesthetic propositions is usually considered to be mind-dependent. Consider the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This phrase is usually used to give the impression that whether something really is beautiful depends on people’s opinions about whether that thing is beautiful.

It is essential to notice that this division of truths into the categories mind-dependent and mind-independent makes sense only if a certain view of the relation between mind and world is already assumed. Namely, it assumes that the mental sphere and the “external” world are clearly separable and distinct. Moreover, on this view, changes in one sphere need not affect the other. If, on the contrary, mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, then an explanation that purports to mark some proposition as purely mind-dependently or mind-independently true will be incomplete, since both mind-local and world-local factors will feature in a satisfactory explanation of the truth or falsity of a proposition. On this view things are not divided into minds and world, but rather there is a world which contains minds. Minds are just units within the world and there is no reason to think they are distinct from the world (although they may have distinctive properties).

The view that mind and world are clearly separable, distinct, and that changes in one need not cause changes in the other comes from Descartes, and it is enormously influential. It has, however, been attacked by Wittgenstein, who proposed something like the alternative view mentioned in the above paragraph.

Here I will not seek to show that Wittgenstein’s view of the relation between mind and world is correct. What I do hope to have shown is that Descartes’ view cannot be assumed without further argument, since an alternative and apparently equally plausible view is available which is not compatible with it. Hence, unless you have an argument in favour of Descartes’ view, you cannot invest any authority in the terms “objective” and “subjective”.

On the alternative (Wittgensteinian) understanding of the relation of mind and world, it is not ruled out that some truths might be entirely mind-dependent or mind-independent. However, if mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, the existence of such truths seems unlikely. I want to give some samples of explanations of moral and scientific propositions which can plausibly be classified as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent.

Science is generally considered to be “objective”, and it does appear that scientific experiments give us direct information about how the world is independently of what anybody thinks about it. Scientific propositions are hence amongst the strongest candidates for mind-independent truths.

However, there is a strong case to say that scientific propositions are still partly mind-dependent. Any scientific hypothesis has to be formulated by using certain concepts. What the scientist looks for as evidence when it comes to empirically confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis will differ depending on her understanding of the concepts in the hypothesis. For example, Wittgenstein suggests, there could be an alien civilization which plays chess, only the moves are communicated by dance rather than on a board. If a human scientist went to study the aliens, they would likely conclude that the aliens do not play chess, since for us the meaning of “chess” is connected with certain customs, such as playing on a board, moving pieces, etc. Since this conceptual element comes into play in science, the results science gives us are partly dependent on mental decisions, such as how to define concepts.

Likewise, there is good reason to believe that the truth of moral propositions is partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent. Hume influentially argued that sentiment alone lies at the root of morality, and this seems to me to be partly right. Who would deny that emotions and sentiments are relevant to morality? They are a central part of the human experience and a code of ethics which did not take that into account would be woefully unrealistic. But why think that Hume is right to say that there is nothing more to morality than sentiment? Why can’t natural facts about the world “outside” of the mind be relevant? For example, as a matter of contingent fact, human beings live in a state of dependency. We are dependent on others for food, water, love, and other precious resources. This may be so partly due to how our minds are, but not entirely, since it is partly due to our bodily, physical states, and is thus not entirely mind-dependent. Again, a code of ethics which failed to take our basic needs into account would be unrealistic and unhelpful.

I have just given two examples of explanations in which what is being explained is conceived as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent, one regarding science and one regarding morality. When we assume that the categories objective and subjective are straightforward, neat, and useful, and think that the mere labelling of a matter as one or the other is sufficient to win or end an argument, we also fail to give explanations such as the ones just given enough respect, thought and, accordingly, criticism. I am not arguing here that those explanations are correct, although I believe that they are along the right lines. But we can scarcely even have a proper debate about whether they are right until we rid ourselves of the damaging dichotomy of objective and subjective that permeates so much philosophical debate. Let us rid ourselves of it: then things will start getting interesting.

My Exam Questions

Here are all but one of the exam questions I’ve sat in the last few weeks. One from the Knowledge and Reality paper is omitted because I’ve forgotten how it was worded and I didn’t take the paper out of the exam room. Thought some of you might be interested to see what kind of thing I’ve been studying in the last 2 years, and wanted to write this down somewhere so I can look back at it someday. I would be interested to hear thoughts on some of these questions.

International Relations:

“Realism’s greatest failing is its incapacity to take domestic politics into account.” Discuss.

“The impact of ethnic nationalism on the international order since the end of the Cold War has been much exaggerated.” Discuss.

“Democratic peace theory is so deeply flawed that it has lost any explanatory value.” Discuss.

International Relations in the era of the Two World Wars:

Was World War One the result of a clash between competing imperialist ambitions?

Does the experience of Central and East European countries in the 1920s and 1930s show that national self-determination is a flawed principle on which to base international order?

Did Neville Chamberlain make a strategic error in attempting to appease Hitler?

Political Sociology:

What difference does it make for democracy if social capital is in decline?

Why are people nationalist?

“To the extent that people still vote the same way as others in their social class, they do so for different reasons than fifty years ago.” Discuss.

The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein:

“Wittgenstein’s discussion of logical necessity fails to identify a way of avoiding the choice between Platonism and conventionalism about necessity.” Discuss.

“Wittgenstein attempts to show that disputes between Idealists, Solipsists, and Realists are merely verbal. But his own philosophy leads in the end to a kind of idealism.” Discuss.

“Where does our investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important?” (WITTGENSTEIN) Does Wittgenstein offer a satisfactory response to this question?

Medieval Philosophy: Aquinas

Discuss Aquinas’ view that whatever human beings seek, they seek under the aspect of the good (sub ratione boni).

How does Aquinas distinguish between imperfect and imperfect happiness (beatitudo)? Why does he think that this distinction is useful, and is it in fact useful for understanding happiness?

How satisfactory is Aquinas’ account of the ways in which the will is, and is not, moved necessarily?


If a moral theory tells me which acts are better than which others but no more, has it missed out anything of importance?

How free does the will need to be?

“Moral naturalists claim that they can easily explain how we can have moral knowledge, by holding that we can know moral facts just as we can know other natural facts. However, this explanation backfires against naturalism, because the way we do know moral facts is clearly different from the way in which we know natural facts.” Is this a good argument against moral naturalism?

Philosophy of Religion:

“Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless. Death gives the meaning to life.” (WILLIAMS) Evaluate the truth of these claims.

What is the theist’s best response to the problem of natural evil?

“Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe.” (JAMES) Discuss.

Knowledge and Reality:

What, if anything, is wrong with the view that knowledge is rationally held, reliably true belief?

Can positing variation in standards across contexts for ascribing knowledge be helpful in solving sceptical puzzles?

Is the world becoming increasingly secure?

One hundred years on from the outbreak of the First World War and at the close of what I think could be fairly described as the most politically turbulent year since the end of the Cold War, we are in urgent need of taking a step back and asking the questions, “What direction are we heading in?” and “Is it the right one?” On the one hand, the troubling events of this year, including the rise of ISIS and Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine, seem to give grounds for pessimism about what is to come in the international relations of the 21st century. Against this view, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack have argued, in a recent Slate article, (1) that violence generally remains on the decline and that the apparent major international political crises of 2014, while serious, do not threaten to buck this trend.

Now, everybody who knows me well knows that I am a very optimistic person. Often my friends find my opinions about politics too ridiculously optimistic to agree with. But on the question of whether the world is becoming more secure, even I can no longer find grounds for optimism. The danger with Pinker and Mack’s view is that it may lead to complacency, or at least a failure to recognize some of the problems that we are facing. If we don’t recognize these problems and respond to them in the right way then they will become insurmountable. My argument shall be that we are in dire need of learning the lessons of 20th century history, because at present we have failed to do so. World War One was not the result of a chance accident. It was more, as Christopher Clark has recently suggested in The Sleepwalkers (2), the result of a decades-long process of gradual decline in the quality of the politics and diplomacy of Europe. Commitment to collective security was gradually replaced by aggressive nationalism and policies of colonial expansion; important alliances were forgotten or, in moments of hubris, believed to be no longer necessary. I suggest that a similar process is happening currently, and that Pinker and Mack have overlooked it. Historians, politicians and journalists have been in the business of seeking to find a group to blame for the outbreak of war. Though I do not deny that some groups were more responsible than others, it is crucial to realise that the politicians of all the European states made serious mistakes and bear much responsibility, and furthermore that many citizens who supported nationalistic policies that undermined collective security do too. (3) Not just that, but other citizens who opposed these policies, or said and did nothing about the matter, could have done more to avert the impending crisis. If we do face a similar situation of gradual decline today, then we all need to be conscientious about our political activity (or lack of it). Most of all it would suggest that, more than ever, “not caring” about politics is not a defensible position. The crisis that I believe we will face if we continue the current course can be averted but it will be difficult and most importantly you need to play your part.

Pinker and Mack’s argument that the world is more secure than ever is based upon the data that show the major kinds of violence to be in decline across the world. I do not dispute this and it is cause for much happiness, but unfortunately I do not think it gives much reason for optimism about international relations for the rest of the century. After Napoleon’s defeat and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the 19th century was, by historical standards, quite peaceful. There was a paucity of conflict between the major powers, with the Crimean War and the wars  of German unification, including the Franco-Prussian war, being the major exceptions (and these were limited in scale). And on top of this, in the latter part of the century, was the imperial expansion of many European powers in Africa and Asia. Still, given the absence of any major inter-state war and gradual industrial and technological progress, the statistics in around the year 1900 would, as far as I know, have been similar to what they are at the present time, i.e. point to a gradual decline in violence. At worst, there was no obvious reason for great alarm when one looked at the state of the international system if you just judged by looking at the statistics (like Pinker and Mack are doing). Yet if you look deeper under the surface of 19th century politics you can see the tensions that later resulted in the cataclysm of the First World War. The Crimean War was a significant part of the gradual process of the estrangement of Russia, which had been an important member of the anti-Napoleonic coalition, from the European collective security system. This estrangement later led Russia to desperate measures in safeguarding its influence in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in the face of rising German power: namely responding to Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia by declaring war and initiating WW1. Bismarck’s wars of German unification resulted in the formation of a state so powerful that it threatened to establish hegemony in Europe and took an alliance of the three next-greatest European states plus the USA to defeat it. And colonial expansion, as Lenin argued, helped develop among the bourgeoisie the appetite for national prestige and power, therefore putting the culture of great power alliances and collective security which had prevailed in 1815 in the background. This is the process of gradual decline to which Clark and other historians have drawn attention. Statistical measures are not sophisticated enough to capture the significance of these diplomatic and cultural developments. What we need to examine, then, is the nature of the international system at present, and whether similar fault lines to those that existed prior to 1914 also exist today.

Pinker and Mack point out, rightly as far as I know, that IS has few friends and lacks the military and financial means to cause much further disruption in the Middle East. Yet the state of the region as a whole remains more troubling than at any other time since 1990. The rise of IS may not mark an international crisis in its own right but it is doubtlessly a symptom of the ultimate failure of US foreign policy in the region. One aspect of this failure has been that international public opinion towards the US has become much more antagonistic, particularly in the Middle East itself, and Europe, where many young liberal and socialist people are devoutly anti-US, and a significant number of Muslims, understandably feeling disenfranchised and holding anti-Western and anti-US sentiments, have (not so understandably) left to fight for IS. Anti-American sentiment in Europe is extremely troubling, for reasons I shall explain further below. But let’s stay with the Middle East for a moment. The US aim in Iraq was not to my knowledge clearly set out, but obviously enough it failed because of the rise of IS. In Afghanistan it did have at least one clear aim, which was to ensure that Al-Qaeda no longer had a base for its international terror operations. But in Afghanistan too the prospects look grim from a Western perspective; the Taliban remain strong and could potentially reclaim power. So Iraq and Afghanistan could both quite easily serve as bases for anti-Western international terror operations in the near future despite US efforts. The major dangers that international terrorism could pose have been detailed by Philip Bobbitt in his book Terror and Consent (4), and should not, I think, be underestimated. Perhaps even more significantly, the costly failures of Iraq and Afghanistan have made US politicians and citizens extremely tentative about further involvement in the Middle East and even elsewhere. Firstly this means that it will be more difficult to muster an effectual response to future international terror groups coming from the Middle East. Furthermore, as Obama’s weak response to the Syrian crisis suggested, the door is now open for Russia and China to gain a greater foothold in the region. Generally the failures of the past ten years could lead to greater support for isolationism and isolationist policies in the US, Britain and France.

Why would US isolationism be such a bad thing? In order to understand this one has to see that the stability of the post-Cold War international system rests pretty much entirely on the crutch of American military power. In the history of international relations, the normal process has been for one power to rise, threaten hegemony, and then for a coalition of other states, who seek to resist the rising power, to form and defeat it. Examples include France under Napoleon and Germany in the first half of the 20th century. It was therefore a serious question for scholars of International Relations why no counter-balancing coalition arose after the end of the Cold War to check the hegemony of the US. The answer to this surely lies in cultural and institutional factors. First, the US, it must be admitted, whatever one’s opinion of it, has a great deal of what Joseph Nye calls “soft power”. American culture is very influential, many people genuinely like it and spend money on American products, and it is apt to describe American influence as “Empire by Invitation”, as Lundestad (5) does. Secondly, the US has to a greater extent than any other great power in history embedded its rule in multilateral international organizations such as the UN, NATO, the IMF, etc. The major advantage of a unipolar system of international relations (i.e. where a counter-balancing coalition does not emerge) is that the normal conflict and war between would-be hegemon and status-quo states does not arise. Moreover the US, by comparison to other major powers in history, has been committed to upholding international security, and it promotes democracy. There have been times when the US has committed atrocities, and we should criticize it vigorously when it abuses its power, but the general advantages of having just one great power that is in favour of democracy and multilateralism can hardly be overestimated. China is now a great power, but it does not yet participate anywhere near as heavily as the US in maintaining international security and it does not promote democracy. It is a matter of empirical fact that democratic states are much less likely to go to war with each other than autocracies, and so the rise of a major and determinedly non-democratic power in China is cause for concern even if democracy in general is on the rise.

The mess in the Middle East is arguably just as much the fault of the US than it is to do with its reduced role, so I shall not discuss that at length here, but the major fault line that has been revealed since the US’s new reluctance to involve itself in international affairs lies in Eastern Europe. Putin has taken advantage of US tentativeness by invading Crimea and Ukraine. Fortunately the Western sanctions against Russia for this have been relatively effective and the situation does not look likely to escalate too much further at present, as Pinker and Mack assure us. Why then do I speak of a fault line being revealed? An alarming recent political development in Germany gives cause for concern: figures associated with the Social Democratic Party have expressed pro-Putin sympathies (6). Throughout Europe, the far-right nationalist parties mostly sympathise with Putin. European party politics is in a delicate balance and it is conceivable that some major European states could, in the next few decades, elect some Putin sympathizers to power. Especially if Germany were to go this way, the results would be disastrous. A German-Russian alliance would be a disaster for the Eastern European states sandwiched between them. This much is already implicit in the suggestion of Matthias Platzeck, the former SPD leader, that “the annexation of Crimea be retroactively recognised by international law, so that it be acceptable for all”. (6) Everybody but Ukraine, that is, one assumes? In this suggestion already we have the idea that the system of international law entrenched by the US in the 1990s can be be revised and manipulated to suit the interests of any great power at all, regardless of the rights or interests of other states. The result of pro-Putin parties in power in Europe could be the splintering of the EU, and the loss, as a result, of some of America’s most important allies to Putin. Europe could be fragmented between pro-US and pro-Russian states once more and, especially if Germany goes to Putin’s side, this would be extremely damaging to the prospects of international peace and could result in another general European war. The recent revelation of the US spying on senior German politicians was, therefore, a seriously damaging blow. Germany should instead be treated as one of America’s closest and most important allies.

There is also one serious fault line that Pinker and Mack do not mention, which is shown in the disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Why peace between those two countries should be risked for the sake of a few tiny rocks, is something only intelligible to those who are so motivated by considerations of national prestige and national power that they are blind to common sense.

What we are faced with is a choice, ultimately, between two paths. The first, which I fear we are pursuing at the moment, is that based on nationalism, on the state focusing on the needs and interests of its national subjects exclusively, and, at best, not expending any money or effort on helping or cooperating with foreigners, and at worst, advocating policies of invading, subjugating or intimidating one’s neighbours. On this view, the nation-state should be sovereign, and the multilateralist, pro-globalization entities that are the US and the EU should be resisted at all costs. This is the path that was followed for most of the 20th century and it led to inter-state war, genocides, hatred, and destruction. The second is that which abandons the ideal of the nation-state and focuses on positive relationships between states and an approach to politics that sees the goal of everything as being the general interest of humanity. We may not be very far along the first path yet but the political fault lines that have come to light in the years since the financial crisis suggest we are starting out on it and neglecting the second path. We all need to concentrate our effort on changing course and doing our best to make sure that these fault lines do not turn into ruptures like they did in 1914. If we fail to do so then optimism of the kind Pinker and Mack have expressed will turn out to have been gravely mistaken.



(2) Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, London: Allen Lane, 2012.

(3) See Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “Domestic Factors in German Foreign Policy before 1914”, Central European History 6 (1), 1973.

(4) Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century, London: Allen Lane, 2008.

(5) Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952”, Journal of Peace Research 23 (3), 1986.

(6), accessed 27/12/2014.


Criticism of New Statesman Article on Abortion Debate

“So, the above is an actual debate about abortion that is happening, in England, in 2014 – Timothy Stanley and Brendan O’Neill discuss a medical procedure neither of them will ever need, which prevents a life-changing event that will never happen to them. Well done, guys.”

Notice the implicit individualist sentiment of this attitude towards the abortion debate. Why would somebody care about a medical procedure that they would personally never need? Never mind that somebody they love might want to have that medical procedure. Never mind that thousands of people throughout the world have this medical procedure. The point is that anybody who isn’t totally selfish cares about health issues no matter whether they personally are likely to be affected (e.g. ebola). Pregnancy of course does not happen to men in the biological sense, but men do become fathers and that is a life-changing event.

“Not only have Oxford Students For Life decided that – on a contentious issue of biology, ethics and women’s bodily autonomy – the people we really need to hear from are “men”; they’ve actually managed to restrict the field yet further to “white men who blog for the Telegraph”. What’s next? A debate on the pay gap, conducted entirely by the cast of Top Gear?”

Autonomy is important but there are at least some men capable of conducting an argument in a way that respects the autonomy of women. On the Telegraph point, it is unfortunately the case that opinion on abortion is usually strongly correlated with left/right loyalty. There are exceptions; I have reservations about abortion despite the fact that I identify as a Marxist and a Feminist, and I recall seeing Mehdi Hasan receiving lots of abuse on twitter for disagreeing with mainstream pro-choice arguments not too long ago. It’s true that the people who have concerns about abortion tend to be conservative; but are you going to respond to their arguments constructively or just arrogantly dismiss them on the grounds that you don’t approve of their overall political stance? No doubt our society is far too dominated by white middle class men, but the best way to cure this is to challenge them in debate rather than dismissing their [edit: sorry,i mean “our”] ideas.

” At any rate, despite the deafening giggling that’s greeted this bit of programming, Oxford Students for Life released a statement, promising that the event will go ahead regardless. It begins:

Free speech is a vital principle of a democratic society, and at a university of all places it should be protected. We’re very happy to discuss people’s concerns about the event, but it would be a shame if open debate was shut down.

Well thank the lord that some plucky upstart is still out there fighting for the freedom of successful white men to air their opinions on women’s bodies.”

The idea that it is somehow inappropriate for men to air their opinions on the issue of abortion seems misguided if understandable. As I mentioned above, women’s autonomy is important. But notice that the debate title OSFL are proposing does not suggest making abortion illegal. There is a huge difference between advocating for abortion to be criminalized, which I wholeheartedly agree would be an immoral violation of women’s autonomy, and being of the opinion that in at least some cases it would not be morally ideal to have an abortion. And if one has this opinion then one might think that the number of abortions which happen in our society is a problem.

The philosophy behind the ethics of abortion is murky and extremely difficult. The fact that we find it so difficult to know what to do in these cases does, I think, partly reflect that there are serious problems with the way our society thinks about morality. Feminists risk making an ethical mistake if they argue from the premise “women should not be legally prohibited from having abortions” to “it is always morally unproblematic for a woman to have an abortion.” This kind of argument is couched in the kind of lazy liberalism which I thought nearly all feminists today were determined to challenge. Many liberals would say that as long as one has a right to do something, it is morally acceptable to do it. For instance it is within one’s legal rights to insult somebody in the street for no reason, but that does not mean that it’s morally acceptable to do. Or to take a feminist example, it is within a husband’s rights to never do any housework, but that’s not acceptable either (assuming he is physically able). There is a serious debate to be had about the morality of abortion. It would be a great mistake to dismiss the arguments of an entire side of that debate on the mistaken charge that they are showing no respect for female autonomy. Any feminist who is eager to avoid being trapped by the liberal individualist way of thinking should realize this.