by Alex Byrne, Robert Stalnaker and Ralph Wedgwood (editors)
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Simon Kirchin, Ph.D. on Nov 11th 2001
Judith Jarvis Thomson's work has always been of the highest standard:
clear, crisp, penetrating, lucid. In this timely collection of
essays, a distinguished field of writers pay tribute to her by
writing about many issues that she has debated over the years.
Although there is nothing here that directly discusses philosophy
of mind or the mental more generally, the collection covers a
number of philosophical areas that bear on the mind and mental
health: metaphysics, epistemology, applied and theoretical ethics.
Many of the essays are written in an engaging manner and some
discuss issues that should appeal to a non-academic audience.
For these reasons the collection deserves to be read widely. This,
in itself, is a tribute to Thomson who has in much of her writing
sought to engage with people from all walks of life. Three of
the essays, in particular, might be of interest.
First, Joshua Cohen in his eminently sensible 'Money, Politics,
Political Equality' discusses the current situation of U.S. electoral
campaign finance. He argues that the current legal framework is
founded on a misguided view of equality, that citizens should
have only equal opportunity to affect the outcome of elections
by voting in it. Current legal practices do not ensure that all
citizens have an equal chance to form or join groups that will
influence the outcome of legislative decisions, say, or influence
the outcome of elections in some other way, e.g. by giving donations.
For Cohen, this reflects a wrongheaded view of democracy since
it sees citizens only as listeners to the real political actors
on the stage. It does not allow everyone an equal chance to get
on the stage and influence the story themselves. Instead, only
the most economically powerful, as it turns out at present, can
write the script. In opposition to this, Cohen defends what he
calls the idea of equal opportunity of political influence, which
does enable citizens to play a more active role if they wish.
In order to do this it seems obvious that there has to be some
regulation on the amount that any one person or group can donate
to parties or candidates, so as to guarantee that the rich do
not have undue influence. Cohen relates his comments to previous
Supreme Court decisions and to current moves to equalize campaign
contributions in various ways in certain states (e.g. Maine).
At the end he gives cause for optimism by noting a recent decision
by the European Court of Human Rights that seems more in keeping
with some of the ideas he discusses.
In 'Word Giving, Word Taking' Catherine Elgin discusses the relation
between promising and testimony in order to bring out some ethical
implications of the latter. In brief, promising involves giving
someone your word and a successful act of promising involves someone
taking you at your word. (If you don't 'take up the invitation',
then I have attempted to promise, but failed. And fulfilling
my promise is another matter again.) What then of testimony? Imagine
that I tell you that my middle name is Michael and you believe
me. Later you find out that I was lying. I have done you a wrong.
This case is straightforward. But what of the case where I tell
you that my middle name is Michael and you already know that it
is Thomas? You don't believe me, so I haven't misled you. You
haven't 'taken up the invitation'. Yet I have still wronged you.
But, what if I tell you whilst you are asleep? Or tell it to someone
who doesn't understand English? There is no word-taking here at
all and Elgin is suspicious that we would say that I have given
false testimony because the hearers don't know what my testimony
is. Elgin adopts a middle position: roughly, people give false
testimony when a hearer has understood the message and acknowledged
it, but not necessarily has believed it. She then discusses what
assumptions need to be made by speaker and hearer concerning common
understanding. My statement 'This rock is 15,000 years old' might
mislead you because you think I am talking literally (rather than
meaning 'it's about 15,000 years old'). But I made a reasonable
assumption that you would understand this. The question is: what
counts as reasonable in this debate? This essay contains many
good ideas, although it would have been helpful, for contrast,
to know exactly where intending to give false testimony
fits in the account: even if you don't understand what I say,
let alone believe me, then I can still be said to have wronged
you if I intend to deceive you.
Lastly, Claudia Mills, in her 'What do Fathers Owe Their Children?',
discusses the supposed asymmetry between mothers and fathers when
it comes to the duties and rights that they have. A man and a
woman have sex and the woman finds that she is pregnant. Supposedly,
says Mills, many of us think that the mother has a right to decide
whether the fetus is aborted and a right to decide whether the
baby is given away for adoption. The father has a duty to support
the mother throughout, but he has less (no?) say in what should
be done with the child at any stage. Furthermore, whether he wants
to be a father or not, he has obligations towards the child as
well as the mother. Of course, there might be many different types
of case: the man and women might both be trying for a child, but
then one might go off the idea; the woman might deceive the man
by telling him that she is using protection when she isn't; and
so on. Through a series of such examples Mills articulates a very
humane position. She says that the women does have sole right
to decide what happens to the fetus when considering whether to
abort through dint of special biological circumstance (it is the
woman carrying the fetus and enduring more). However, she thinks
that a good woman will take into account the wishes of the man.
The issue of adoption is less clear, but, on the whole, she thinks
that both parties should have an equal say. (The waters are muddied
somewhat here by her arguing that giving away a child whom one
wants is worse than keeping a child whom one doesn't want. The
argument here is fairly short and I can see no good reason for
saying that, across the many varied cases that might be covered
by these descriptions, one can't see both as equally bad, regrettable
and the like.) It should be noted that as well as being a lucid
account of the problems, Mills' essay offers some personal insights
into her position that add life to it.
© 2001 Simon Kirchin
Simon Kirchin is
a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol,