Monday, 15 February 2010

'The pig that wants to be eaten' by Julian Baggini

A book of a 100 ‘thought experiments’ to provoke us into thinking – thinking about moral and philosophical issues. Each chapter presents a story, often developed from the ideas of a famous philosopher such as Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Rawls or from more populist authors such as Philip Dick and Douglas Adams. Baggini then discussed the issue raised in a few paragraphs, so that each chapter is exactly 3 pages long and the book 300 pages long.

I first met Julian Baginni at a ‘Sea of Faith’ conference – or rather I heard a talk of his on ‘Selfhood’, without talking to him personally. His lecture was entertaining and approachable, yet touched on profound issues. So I was inclined to buy one of his (several) books when browsing in a bookshop a few months ago.

The format of the book encourages you to pick it up and put it down at short intervals, while one digests the individual chapters. At first I thought it slightly lightweight. Some of the thought experiments did not quite work for me – maybe I chafed against the necessary restrictions and unreality of artificial, fanciful ‘thought experiment’ situations. I could see that some raised important and tricky issues, but then felt unsatisfied by the mere few paragraphs that Baggini used to cover the issue, leaving many things unresolved. I even put the book down for a few weeks (though that is a common thing I do, since I often read 10- 15 books in parallel).

When I picked it up again, and ploughed along through the second half, I found familiar issues returning with a fresh perspective, and further commentary. I started to follow the connections to other chapters he suggests, and re-read earlier ones. I started to make notes on the book. Themes started to emerge from the mist. Baggini deliberately jumbles up the themes – but ultimately you realise that they are all related. So the book gained depth and weight, as I read backwards and forwards. I became more and more interested, and appreciated his self-restraint in limiting his commentary in each chapter. Instead a more resonant meta-commentary was emerging. I realised the author is an eternal questioner and is forever prising apart our ‘rationality’ our ‘morality’ our ‘common sense’. He does not propose evangelical solutions, but leaves a huge, sparkling scepticism hanging in the air, like stars in the night sky.

As an example, thought experiment #89 is titled ‘Kill and let die’. Here a man at a junction box knows a runaway train is going to kill 20 men in a tunnel, but he can divert the train to another track where he knows for certain it will kill only 5 men. What should he do? The Benthamite philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number would dictate he flicks the switch to kill only the 5 men, rather than let the 20 men die. Doing nothing causes the greater harm, but flicking the switch requires an act on his part which is tantamount to choosing to kill the 5 men on the other track.

The thought experiment rules require that we introduce no excuses about uncertainty or a third way; by remorselessly focusing on this dilemma it forces us to decide and clarify our fuzzy, contradictory thoughts. So Baggini is charmingly slamming us up against a brick wall with a loaded gun to our heads, and forcing us to think, to work things out for ourselves.

John Vernon

'Thatcher and sons' by Simon Jenkins

In a bookshop my hand hovered over a copy of ‘Atlas shrugged’ which had been strongly recommended to me by a friend, but I veered away, put off by the ponderous size of the book; instead I picked up this book, since it seemed to have tangential relevance to the same themes. I wanted to learn more and think more about ‘Thatcherism’, a political movement which has dominated my adult life. I would say from the start that I have tended to view ‘Thatcherism’ with overall approval, though tempered with reservations and criticisms.

Simon Jenkins is well placed to give a detailed and insightful narrative of the whole movement (if that is the right word), and the level of detail is astonishing. He sweeps from the early 1970s, when the UK was struggling politically and economically, through to the accession of Gordon Brown to power – though the book came out before the current financial crisis. His amusing and persuasive argument is that the dominant political philosophy in this country is unbroken from Thatcher to Brown – hence the title and the cover picture of Thatcher walking along, with eager pupils – Major, Blair and Brown – scurrying after.

He explains vividly the origins of Thatcher’s political views, giving due weight to other key figures, such as Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Keith Joseph. Surprisingly he portrays Thatcher herself as a timid and reluctant ‘Thatcherite’ up to her second election victory in 1983. Quite rightly, he points out the many gaps between her stirring, stern rhetoric and what she actually did.

The first revolution that Jenkins identifies is the traditionally understood drive to change the UK fundamentally by privatisation, increasing entrepreneurial incentives, reducing the overweening power of the unions and so forth. Many interesting details and trenchant opinions are embedded in this account, many critical. He points out the self-serving untruths in Thatcher’s autobiography along the way – such as her later assertion that she always believed in a strong defence policy, whereas the truth is that her government had plans for swingeing cuts in defence just before the Falklands war (including selling one of our aircraft carriers to Argentina!).

The second revolution he identifies is far less positive – the massive centralisation of power and increase in bureaucracy that she initiated. Here her central contradiction becomes starkly clear: she believed in revolutionising the state by giving power back to individuals, but because she thought so many organs of government were incompetent and tainted with socialism – especially local government – she then proceeded to gather more power into her hands in order to effect the changes she wanted to see. She could not let go and be true to her theoretical beliefs. She felt she was the only one who saw things correctly, and knew how to change them.

Jenkins’ detailed account of how power was centralised in the Treasury and the number 10 cabinet office – something that went into overdrive under John Major – provides many facts and views of which I had not been fully aware. The argument of continuity of policy under the Labour party government is convincing. The drive for more central control then led to a myriad of ‘targets’ and endless reforms. The increasing waste and incompetence of central government, especially under Gordon Brown’s treasury and John Prescott’s various roles, are bitterly savaged.

By the end of the book, we have a hideously compelling picture of the modern ‘Leviathan’ which hunkers over our lives today, with a bloated public sector, gross waste of resources, infantile targets, endless inspections/ audits/reviews and higher taxes. Jenkins then brings out his proposal for a third revolution, which is to devolve more power to local government. He makes useful comparisons with the structures of local power in many of our European neighbours. He is generally approving of Scottish and Welsh devolution, and sees great potential in the very local structure of civic involvement, down to parishes and town councils. He likes the idea of city Mayors. It is a call to the revival of local democracy and civic pride.

John Vernon

'The logic of life' by Tim Harford

This is one of that genre of books that makes Economics popular and ‘sexy’. He works for the Financial Times and has presented BBC television series, and so clearly has the communication skills. He broadly succeeds in his aim of explaining many social and even historical oddities in terms of underlying economic logic. He his persuasive, and the economic logic is persuasive.

It is not revolutionary – many of the things he explains are well known (at least to me), but he explains them exceptionally well, providing many fresh insights and facts. He expounds rational behaviour coming up with less than optimal results, with vivid and gritty examples. He demonstrates how (micro-)economics has become much more practical and science-based in recent years, explaining academic work in easy to understand ways. The economics profession has finally embraced the need to meet scientific standards of experimental testing. The ingenious ways in which they achieve this are worth learning about.

At business school, I found Mico-economics interesting and explanative, but Macro-economics hopelessly boring and of little practical use. Macro-economics tries to explain the workings of an endlessly complex mechanism with over-simplified models, and cannot be subjected to scientific tests. I used to assert that Economics cannot be graced with the name of a science, but certainly some micro-economists have achieved scientific status – as well as becoming popular.

I enjoyed the book and would include it in a list of recommended books on economics.

John Vernon

'Collapse', by Jared Diamond

‘Collapse’ is sub-titled ‘How societies choose to fail or survive’. This reflects his ultimate message, where he gives an optimistic message about how society can save itself from a global collapse, tipped over by the multiple environmental catastrophes that accelerate abound us. It is also a wake-up call: our human society can survive only if it perceives the threats and changes its actions. If we go on as we are, however, our society will collapse, possibly quite soon and possibly catastrophically.

It is a chunky book, running to 560 pages and crammed with impressive detail. The author is a polymath, having had three distinct careers as a physiologist, a zoologlist and an environmental historian. Apparently he is learning his twelfth language. So evidently clever and wide-ranging his he that one reviewer has amusingly commented “ ‘Jared Diamond’ is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.” So we are in good hands.

Diamond looks are case studies of where societies have failed in the past, drawing on all historical, archaeological and ecological sources. These are Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Henderson Island, Anasazi native Americans, the Mayan civilizations and the Greenland Viking settlements. These were clearly catastrophes and left nothing or only a fragment of its population behind, with their artefacts and buildings for scientists to dig up. The causes are various and the individual stories different, but common threads are identified in a systematic and wholly convincing way. The common thread can be summarised as environmental degradation (caused or speeded up by human activity), and the failure of people to adapt to the changes or to prevent them.

These stories are somewhat comforting, like what the Japanese call ‘a fire on the other side of the river’. We can shake our head at the wrong-headedness and the limited technology they had, assuming that we are above and beyond all that. They are also relatively small and exotic stories. However, Diamond shows how they did the best in the circumstances, within their mind-set. The limitations of their cultural mind-set are especially keenly felt in the case of the Norse Vikings eking out and increasingly desperate existence in two settlements in Western Greenland. While they died out, starving to death in poignant, isolated circumstances, the native Inuit were going about their business around them with success, surviving the colder climate with superior technology (e.g. kayaks) and adaptability.

Maybe to cheer us up, the author throws in a few examples of historical success, including the maintenance of their environment by the Papua New Guineans and the reforestation of Japan in the Tokugawa era. This is only one chapter, but enlightening.

Then he moves on to describe modern societies which have/are collapsed/collapsing. His case studies are Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia. The genocide in Rwanda is clearly linked to the extreme overpopulation of this land and the extreme tensions arising from the need to have enough resources to survive. Haiti is just about the world’s worst basket-case (maybe Somalia runs it close), and its desperately poor society is described as surviving on the edge, limping along with international aid. More than 95% of the land has been deforested and the soil is degrading rapidly with every rainstorm and hurricane.

China is necessarily described in broad brush terms, but the scale and variety of the environmental problems there are deeply depressing: climate change, sandstorms, desertification, soil erosion, salinisation, water shortages, floods, sediment discharge, acid rain, smog, chemical pollution of water, air and soil, wetland destruction, over-fishing, loss of native species, infestation by alien species, importation of garbage and so forth.

Australia? Yes, he points out that Australia is the first world country with the most severe environmental degradation. Nearly all the problems listed for China are present in Australia, if not proportionally worse. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world, with some of the least robust soils. The problems have been exacerbated by government policies over the decades, for instance requiring leasehold farmers to clear native vegetation as a condition of their lease. As it happens, my National Geographic magazine for this month also had an extensive article on the drying and salinisation of the Murray/Darling basin, so Diamond’s assertions are powerfully corroborated.

Diamond describes the country’s renewable resources as being ‘mined’ – i.e. extracted at such a fast rate that they will never recover to their former level. Most stunning of all, the author cites an environmentalist’s estimate that Australia can only sustain a long-term population of 8 million people. That puts paid to some politicians’ dreams of a 50 million population, and, given that the present population is 20 million, one can envisage some catastrophic and pitiful shrinkage of the number of people left alive.

He by no means predicts an immediate collapse, and he is keen to demonstrate that policies and attitudes are already changing. However he does not need to spell it out – having just read about the complete deforestation of Easter Island, the reader can make the obvious connections, but on a much larger scale.

John Vernon

'The Consolations of philosophy' by Alain de Botton

I enjoy de Botton’s books for their breadth of reading and thinking, in which he applies philosophy to everyday life. I have also read his ‘Status anxiety’, which is somewhat more original.

This book is a commentary and summary of the thoughts of six great philosophers, with a pleasantly quirky individualism from the author intruding. In addition to giving us the essence of their philosophies, he outlines what is known of their lives. The heavy sprinkling of illustrations is entertaining, and relevant to the text. The six are:
Socrates - Consolation for unpopularity
Epicurus - Consolation for not having enough money
Seneca - Consolation for frustration
Montaigne - Consolation for inadequacy
Schopenhauer - Consolation for a broken heart
Nietzsche - Consolation for difficulties

This is not high-falutin’ exegesis of difficult philosophy, but neither it is condescending or simplistic. The author strikes the right note (to my mind), with humour and sagacity. If you want a quick “bluffers guide” to these philosophers, I would recommend this book. De Botton himself has clearly done a deal of research to write these essays. He quotes extensively from the works, annotating the source of every single quotation from an astonishing wide range of books. He has done a lot of digesting for us. He has also travelled to several relevant sites, such as Montaigne’s famous circular library.

I learned much from this book. For instance, I knew virtually nothing of Schopenhauer, but now I can place him in the history of thought. I read some Nietzsche at university, but could not grasp the overall point of what he was trying to say – now I think I have grasped the theme. It also inspired me to pick up another book which I have had on my shelves for 30 years – a Penguin edition selection of Montaigne’s essays. He is probably the most worthwhile of this six to pursue further.

John Vernon

'Nemesis' by Max Hastings

This is a history book about the 1944-45 defeat of Japan. It is a pair with his book about the end of the war in the European theatre called ‘Armageddon’, which I am now keen to read.

It is a chunky book, exhaustively researched, chock full of personal anecdotes from diaries, letters and interviews. This makes the book vivid, and different from a conventional academic account.

Hastings is a veritable Virgil, leading us through the hell of those two years. The awfulness of the deeds done on both sides are not shunned, and this gives the book a grim fascination. How much worse can it get?

His choice of how much space to devote to each episode is slightly quirky, yet seems right. For instance, he deals with the events of dropping the two atomic bombs in only a few paragraphs, and includes no personal accounts of those episodes. However, he devotes many pages to discussing the decision-making (or lack of) that went on prior to dropping these new weapons. He exhaustively rehearses all the pro and con arguments about using the atom bombs, and gives his own forthright opinion – basically, necessary. Also he had previously spent many pages describing in detail the fire-bombing of Japanese cities that preceded (and followed) the atom bombs, from both American and Japanese points of view. The horror of any kind of mass bombing is fully depicted by several Japanese accounts from Tokyo.

It is very informative, and I learned much: the detail of the Burma campaign, the detail of the Leyte campaign, the actions of the Chinese armies and politicians, the obstructiveness and selfishness of Australian port workers, the totally ineffectual role of the Royal Navy in assisting the Americans in the Pacific, the horrible actions of the Japanese on the Philippines the final Russian invasion of Manchuria and so forth.

Hastings particularly has it in for General MacArthur. He assassinates his character, only saying at the end that he redeemed himself by his rule of Japan after the war. Hastings describes his massive ego, self-promotion and frequent military mistakes. He clearly thinks MacArthur was a liability in war and cost many lives, not just American but also Philippine.

Hastings brings moral judgement to every episode, and sees a futility in most of the military events. He judges the most effective part of winning the war to have been the submarine service sinking Japanese ships and blockading the home islands.

John Vernon

'Silence' ('Chinmoku') by Shusaku Endo

This is a Japanese novel, translated by William Johnston, written by a famous writer, who was baptised into the Catholic religion. Endo has been aptly described as a Japanese Graham Greene.

The book is about the futile efforts of Portuguese missionaries to sustain the Christian communities in Japan after the official policy of suppression of Christianity was in full swing. It follows the personal experience of one particular priest and his personal suffering and the suffering he inadvertently causes to those to whom he ministers. He and they are tortured and urged to apostatise. Gruesome tortures are described in detail.

The book is fascinating and important for several reasons. It illuminates the mixing and clash of cultures, which was an immense chasm of difference in the 16th Century between feudal, isolationist Japan and the expansionist, energetic West. The macro historical picture explains events in terms of winning trade routes, wealth and influence. However Endo concentrates on the amazing personal bravery and sacrifices made my individual priests. In the end the protagonist has no personal possessions, wearing lice-ridden peasant clothes and eating whatever he was given.

The ‘silence’ referenced in the title is very profound. The priest prays to God and hopes for some tangible improvement in the lives of his flock, but there is no response from God. There is a complete silence, which undermines the faith and sanity of the priest. God seems completely indifferent, even harsh and absurd. (The book was published in 1966 in the midst of the Western theatre’s obsession with absurd drama, of which he was well aware). Like Graham Greene’s priest in ‘The power and the glory’, the priest is admirable, but their efforts appear ultimately futile. Greene ekes out a little salvation, but Endo chooses a sad, tragic, deflating ending with no salvation.

John Vernon