Category: Philosophy

Would You Kill the Fat Man?

Consider the following scenario. Terrorists have hijacked three passenger aeroplanes, two of which have just been flown into skyscrapers in the middle of a busy city. On its first run, the third plane missed its target, but it is now lining up for another attempt. In the meantime, you – the head of the Air Force – have been able […]

Read more ›

Review: The Importance of Being Civil

In his stimulating book The Importance of Being Civil, John A. Hall tears a leaf from the street-fighter’s handbook and gets his retaliation in first. To those who will say that concepts such as decency have no place in a work of sociology, he insists that ‘civility is not sugary froth but an ideal of visceral importance’ and that ‘the […]

Read more ›

On the side of the Angels: A. C. Grayling

Of all the shady turns of phrase to have lodged themselves in the popular consciousness since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the term ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ is surely one of the shadiest. A version of the logical fallacy known as ‘the appeal to hypocrisy’, this ingenious bit of rhetorical jujitsu suggests that the enemies of religious obscurantism are no less intolerant […]

Read more ›

Review: Two Cheers for Anarchism and How to Run a Country

‘Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice,’ declared Mikhail Bakunin in 1867, ‘[but] socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.’ This ideological double-bind is no less relevant to party politics as it is practised in contemporary Canberra as it was to what Eric Hobsbawm termed, in his book of the same name, ‘the age of extremes’. For notwithstanding the occasional […]

Read more ›

Prophet of gloom

That the British philosopher John Gray shares his name with a US author of popular books on sex and relationships has always struck me as an unfortunate coincidence. Imagine a man who walks into his local bookstore looking for the latest offering from the author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) and walks out with a […]

Read more ›

Cheer up, it may happen

The self-help genre has always had its critics. Even in 1983, before the craze for self-improvement had really got going, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos was taking aim at its habits of mind. Then, in 1998, we got Christopher Buckley’s God is My Broker, which delineates the ‘7½ Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth’. (Conclusion: ‘The only way to […]

Read more ›

On Jeremy Waldron and Martha C. Nussbaum

Whenever there is a discussion about free speech, two things are almost certain to be said. The first is (roughly) ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ And the second is (equally roughly) ‘Freedom of speech should not extend to falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.’ While the first […]

Read more ›

On Michael Rosen and Susan Cain

On 25 October 1991, the Mayor of Morsang-sur-Orge, Paris, issued an order banning a dwarf-tossing competition due to take place at a local discotheque. Invoking his police powers for the maintenance of public order, the Mayor took the view that the practice of dwarf-tossing was an affront to human dignity. Certainly the proposed event – which was to feature one […]

Read more ›

Them’s not fighting words

I hesitate to begin a book review by referring to the publisher’s blurb, still less to the puff-quote on the book’s front cover, but in the case of Public Enemies, a volume of correspondence between the novelist Michel Houellebecq and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, the temptation proves irresistible. First the puff-quote: ‘Brilliantly done’ (Ian Buruma, New York Times). Now, we […]

Read more ›