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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Underpinning Thomas Nagel’s philosophy on death is the belief that it is the loss of life which is evil about the state of being dead because being alive and having conscious experience simply is a positive state to be in, regardless of life’s fortunes and misfortunes (and even if the negatives outweigh the positives – e.g., enduring a life of extreme, painful torture). He maintains this position without really justifying it and if one disagrees, this ought to be the first point of contention.

In Nagel’s paper on death[1]  he starts out by trying to establish whether death is ‘an evil’, and how great this evil may be, and of what kind. In turn then, we are obliged to ask for a clear definition of what we mean by evil – contained therein is the implicit assumption that evil is an existing concept and this is something which might need to be challenged on a separate basis.  The fact that Nagel believes death is a ‘thing’ ( an entity perhaps), rather than the lack of a thing or the cessation of existence (which is a crucial aspect to my argument surrounding the concept of death), is evidenced by the fact that he thinks we can attribute this said characteristic to it (evil). According to this then, in a similar manner we could for the sake of argument say that evil is ‘good’, ‘indifferent’, or even ‘extremely good’. This postulates a certain (corrupted) type of thinking about what ‘death’ actually is – an assertion that it is in fact a state of being, but when we say it is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, we are making a moral claim about a material matter which is of course, soon to be non-material (once the body disappears, etc.) – which is then non-existence. For this argument, both Nagel and I are not engaging in a discussion of the afterlife.

Expanding and continuing on this theme, Sam Harris makes the plausible claim (which Nagel doesn’t primarily disagree with) that for changes in the Universe to matter, they have to matter at least potentially to some conscious system/being. Concepts of good and evil and indeed experience itself depend on minds. Agreeing with this motion, it seems we can say that independent bodies (friends, family, etc.) can experience evil, by virtue of their being conscious, when people die (through the form of say, grief, anguish, pain), and so death will be a bad thing for them in this regard, but Nagel makes his position easier to refute by claiming he ‘will not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others, only the value it has for the person who is its subject’. This has to contradict the idea that for changes in the Universe to matter they have to be a conscious being, for the value of death to the individual subject themselves is firstly, knowledge which is unattainable by us (and therefore it seems hard to make a claim about it for each person as Nagel does) and secondly non-existent – by virtue of the very nature of being dead, the lack of being as I have so emphasised – so how could it ever be of ‘value’ to them? To me, it makes sense to say that in the indifference of the natural universe, we cannot put any moral value or claim to the state of being dead. I acknowledge that this is a fundamental difference of understanding of what death is between my school of thought and Nagel’s.

Nagel makes an analogy between the popular saying ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ and thought that whether anything can be bad simply as a depravation of goods (i.e., dying). It makes sense to think of death this way – of course it is truly a shame if a man’s reputation is slandered once he is 6ft under, but this has no bearing on the goodness or badness of events on behalf of the individual who is dead. The person who fails to execute a person’s will once they have died is doing a moral disservice to the deceased (and arguably, themselves) but we wouldn’t say the dead cares or is somehow morally affected. To me it is true that the person’s doesn’t seem to be harmed (in a recognisable way that we would define harmed – e.g., feeling a pain or anguish or is personally damaged) when he is unaware of being betrayed behind his back – unless it affects him later, i.e., he finds out (but this is not the question). It therefore seems to me that Nagel’s attempt to argue against the notion that ignorance is bliss rather fails – I think most people, intuitively, would believe it to be true, as long as that ignorance prevails (for their lifetime). It is hard to say that one has been truly harmed, damaged or hurt, if they are not aware of the fact.

It is a plausible thought of Nagel’s that it is the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because we feel it is bad to be betrayed (and not the other way around), but the moral burden is therefore on the person who did the betraying (regardless of whether the individual discovered it or nor). If the person discovered they had been betrayed, they would express displease at the ethics of the person who did it – there was a wicked, moral intention behind it. This feeling would not exist without the other person doing the betraying and it is a reflection of that person. The victim wouldn’t care as much if the consequences of the betrayal were non-existent or tiny. This is in a nutshell the justification of a victimless crime. But when talking about death, the indifference of the natural universe cannot be used as a convincing analogy with the betrayer in the same way, simply because of the neutrality of the physical order of the World. In summary, this is the main empirical fact which leads me to believe it is wrong to ascribe moral notions or claims onto non-existence (what used to be the subject, the person), i.e. aiming to justify that death is always a bad thing, as Nagel does. Epicurus sums up my position and what I believe to be the most rational way of thinking about it; ‘Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not’.


[1] * From Nagel, T (1979), Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-10

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“Mr. French is a peeping Tom”, I stood accused.

For too many summers I had enjoyed, face

Pressed against the glass – the warm hum that comes

Watching a scene from afar, a chapter in somebody elses novel.

The flickering of pages came to a halt as I

Became judge and jury at my own trial.

I see myself as they see me,

‘I only really wanted to climb the tree,

But I slipped and fell, right by the glass,

And I see how it looks to someone walking past’.

“You’re going to have to do better than a rhyme if

Ya don’t wanna do the time” they tell me, the voice

Reverberates, loud, like some old headmasters, throttling my

Youth into sin & landing my dignity, in the bin.

 

I said, we’ve  all been outside looking in and you don’t

Threaten me anymore with your corduroy and trousers and

Disgusting beard. My story will continue long after your gone!

 

But then I knew. A peeping Tom never quite loses a reputation.

I had been caught with my trousers down – almost too literally,

Just to get some glimpse of the gown. And the pompous, & ceremony.

I was just one of the unlucky ones

But I got to write about it…

+ they filmed my trial.

I can dream I am free,

It’s only called denial,

That I – Mr. French – am a peeping Tom.

I landed after a short and fairly sweet flight at Belfast International Airport too early in the morning, as me and my Dad made way into Belfast City.  The landscape is as similar to Yorkshire as I expected, although the green fields are made slightly more illuminating through the systematic weather sequence of rain, then shine, then rain again. We firstly went by the Queen’s University (so titled as an old Commonwealth institution) which is a nice enough City campus, and soon realised the fact that both Philip Larkin and my own Grandfather would have been at the University around the same time (in the late 1940’s – Larkin as a young librarian, my Grandfather presumably, as an Army-man, being deployed to patrol the Ulster Streets just having got back from Burma in the War!). Interesting territory, which I didn’t feel related to at all.

We drove around the surrounding Town’s and greenery – the fields along the coast almost have the mythical charm of the sort which I felt at the Wicklow Mountains from my Dublin trip a few years ago – but the cosy Eire glow is soon distinguished when traipsing across the rugged, rather worn out settlements, like Larne or Carrickfergus or Lisburn (not that one).  I visited the newly built (costing £97,000,000) Titanic experience museum, which was okay… a lot of information. Good for fans, but they don’t half publicise the story; I had to remind myself a couple of times that they are actually capitalising on a tragedy and quite a bad technical engineering feat as the conclusion and indeed, memory, of the mammoth saga. At night, we stayed at the Jury Inn hotel without many complaints (other than not being able to get into the room a couple of times), which was near the relatively famous Europa Hotel, which has been bombed a record of 28 times throughout the Troubles, and was also a residence where my (same) Grandfather occasionally happened to attend conferences in the 70’s.  Great boozer opposite – called I think, The Castle – with amazing interior décor and a keen eye for taste with low lying booths  and a good selection of bevvies; it is good to taste a real Irish Guinness once more. Here is another one I enjoyed in the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen the next day, with a rather wonderful backdrop!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Killyhevlin Hotel was also another old target for the IRA as it was bombed during a wedding party in 96’ and yet to stay here you would not know it for the peace and for children running around. The same can be said for the town of Omagh, very near the border, which of course suffered the worst atrocity of The Troubles in 1998 when a bomb killed 30+ people, and the Town of Enniskillen, when a bomb caused 12 casualties on Remembrance Day a decade earlier. The places are quiet, the people are friendly, with no hint other than a few obscure plaques than such atrocities had occurred – but the undercurrent of extreme Republicanism always feels present as a Brit walking these streets.

One of the most interesting places we went was the old country on the coast, right over to the Giant’s Causeway, where they’re currently building a visitors centre (modern, trendy) next to an aged hotel (old, retro, cosy). A pathway leads down the cliff face to the Giant’s Causeway (so called as a walkway to Scotland for the Irish warrior Finn McCool) which is a series of interlocking basalt columns from an old volcanic eruption which lead into the sea. It’s really nice to stand at the edge by the sea as shown below (straight ahead – the next land to hit would be Iceland) and have the spray blow into your face. Only slightly tacky is the fact that a paved drive leads all the way up to the site with buses coming back and forth!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we left the area to go back home, we drove through the loyalist part of Town (in Belfast); the paraphernalia is mildly threatening and hostile over a grey sky backdrop but with what looks like any other council estate. Striking graffiti brings back the real situation of partition in Ireland – driving along the long stretch you can’t help but notice ‘Prepared for Peace – Ready for War’ in big lettering alongside pictures of men in balaclavas with guns – fairly typical imagery of the type you imagine. It still leaves that remaining impression in your mind that there is an undercurrent of what we might consider extremism. But with advancing years let’s drink a Guinness to the relative peace in the region!

We witnessed the latest episode in the struggle for the rights of medical cannabis users in the ever-complex land of the United States last week, as Federal agents raided the Oaksterdam University, a marijuana trade school and a nearby cannabis dispensary, both primarily operated by Richard Lee, medical marijuana activist.

The institution was established in 2007 in the Oaksterdam district in Oakland, California (one of 16 US states where cannabis is legal at State level) by Richard Lee, to ‘provide students with the highest quality training for the cannabis industry’[1]. The main objective and practice of the University is to spread information on training in the business of cannabis and through this, promote the legitimization of the Cannabis industry in California, modelling itself on the cannabis trade schools in The Netherlands, such as the Cannabis College in Amsterdam.  The institution, along with the nearby Oaksterdam Museum (who all pay millions of dollars in taxes annually) was raided Monday morning by the DEA, IRS and US Marshals Service, who seized documents and rubbish bags with unspecified content.  Small protests followed and shortly evaporated, but the future of the establishment and the Oaksterdam district in general, remains ambiguous.

This incident is not isolated; according to Americans for Safe Access (a medical-marijuana based organisation) there have been over 170 raids since 2009 across the US[1] – that’s hundreds of thousands of patients affected – whilst Proposition 19 was marginally defeated two years ago, which would’ve allowed Government regulation of legal cannabis, with imposed fees and taxes. As if these recent events weren’t painful enough, last week the state of Arizona signed into law a bill which will ban medical marijuana from being used on college’s and university campuses (including of course all methods of consumption), likely to cause social stigmatization in these important social arenas.

The incident has raised concerns for the medical-marijuana community in California, particularly the Harborside Health Center, a regulated dispensary also based in Oakland, which also happens to be the largest in the World. Harborside has had various threats from the IRS over the last two years regarding its business conduct, documented in ‘Weed Wars’, a program broadcast on the Discovery Channel. Assessing the situation from afar it seems noticeable that the authorities chose to attack the university (instead of just a dispensary) – perhaps because of their free licence to spread information on private production of cannabis and profiteering as a business, rather than just selling and distributing the drug. To try and determine the objectives of the authorities and federal agents who organised the raid, their concern on this front seems more understandable; the desire to exercise their power and eliminate personal usage whilst discrediting the facts and existing information.

The contempt of the agents and the federal arm by who they are employed is made plain by the fact that they give no warning when executing these hijacks, as well as the unnecessarily large police presence, when there is no hint of violence erupting (one video of the protestors on YouTube shows dozens of officers surrounding the few peaceful individuals). I think this provocative action indicates that the intention is destruction or at the very least, debilitation; over this there can be no quarrel. As Steve DeAngelo of the Harborside Health Center pointed out last year, “Federal prosecutors are not trying to clean up the regulated medical cannabis industry; they are trying to destroy it”[1] .

It is also too easy to notice the awkward and rather insensitive timing of the bust – the university was raided the same morning as the Oikos University Shooting also in Oakland. One hopes it is not too flippant to point out the absurdity in the fact that US Marshalls were raiding a peaceful medical school and dispensary at a time when they should have been placed to deal with what was the deadliest outburst of gun violence since Virginia Tech in 2007.

Furthermore, one of the most disappointing aspects of the whole affair is the unwelcome fact that the increasing pressure of action against the medical cannabis schools and dispensaries is in direct conflict with the statements made in the 2008 Presidential elections by the Obama Administration about medical marijuana. Four years ago, when asked on the priorities of the Government regarding this issue, Barack Obama said “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue”[1].  Acknowledging there is no fair game in the world of politics, this spectacular U-turn aside to everything else, rather undermines this government’s efforts to reduce unemployment and make any amendments to the healthcare system.

The damage done to the brand in this particular instance may not be of much significance; the Oaksterdam University has stated that it will re-open immediately. But it drives home the very real message that cannabis is still illegal in the USA, and its governmental approval will not be gained through the guise of a taxable business, however much this ought to be rewarded in a capitalist society. It seems therefore that the war on drugs is far from reaching an end and the absurd contradiction between Federal and State law is still causing problems for patients and businesses alike.

There needs to be a change in the zeitgeist for the greater community of California and patients all across the US – to speak out against the ultimate injustice of the discrimination which medical cannabis user’s face – and finally get rid of the incompetence. Meanwhile, California can only keep on dreaming…


I was shocked when I learnt recently that apartheid in South Africa was only officially abolished a few years after I was born, in 1994. In my ignorance I believed it was something which had faded away no later than the 1980’s, with Nelson Mandela emerging as the figurehead of a reformed South Africa a decade or so after. Perhaps this impression was generated (understandably) because of the hushed tones it has been spoken of in the time since, like some barbaric artefact of the past belonging to the previous generations.  But can a system like apartheid ever ‘belong’ – and are the stories really that distant?

The two fundamental groups out of which the racial segregation evolved in South Africa are still present; the white Afrikaner’s (with Dutch, French and German heritage) and the black African natives. With this segregation between whites and blacks ever present from the Dutch and British colonisation of the Country, the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 officially changed the status of black slaves as ‘free’. Meanwhile, laws of institutional separation continued to be developed throughout the early 20th Century leading to the adoption of apartheid in 1948, when the National Party took hold. It could then be said that the fundamental reason or ‘problem’ which lead to the situation is still present (as the two races are present) but it is the attitude which changed (as well as international pressure, internal revolts and important figures such as Nelson Mandela).  In some communities though the attitudes haven’t changed (maybe for reasons too deep-seated to discuss candidly here) and the sins of their fathers have been transposed onto the sons.

The Kommando Korps, based in various locations in South Africa, is a survival camp which according to their Facebook page has the ‘ultimate goal that the fellow members of the local commando’s mutually protect each other’[1]. In at least all internet descriptions of the camp, an emphasis is placed on ‘protecting their own people’; a racist implication may not yet register.  But the Kommando Korps believe a racial apocalypse is imminent and train their disaffected youth in accordance.  Witness reports tell stories of apartheid-era uniforms, the old national anthem ringing in disgust of a rainbow nation… “The training has taught me that you should hate black people, they kill everyone who crosses their path”[2], said one boy in an interview. One wonders how far the termites have dug.

I first read about the Kommando Korps in an edition of the Sunday Times Magazine (Feb edition I think), with a photograph shown of a blond haired, blue eyed Afrikaner teenager sternly pointing a pistol at the back of another’s head.  As a blunt image, it invokes a sense of guerrilla warfare, with the deserted field in background. The violent association is immediately made plain but I was slightly shocked to discover that the camp is 100% unofficial, like some secret army training for non-existent warfare. Activities undertaken include army drills, 4am runs, weaponry training and engagement of physical combat – for boys aged 13 upwards. It is a relatively small group, training no more than 1500 in the last decade but one which has received revised attention in recent months.

Can an analogy be drawn between the likes of the American Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups and the Kommando Korps? Perhaps, in terms of the breeding and thinking, but the Kommando Korps don’t seem as interested in spreading any ‘shock’ message (although ‘shocked’ might be the reaction of many outsiders – not so much at racism, but rather at the seemingly provocative, paranoid agenda of the group – considering the sensitive recent history of apartheid). The type of organisation which the Kommando Korps belongs to is much more combative in style; they are ready to use their fists and guns than just words. Their objective of defense and their prediction of the future are set down as matter of fact in this violent group, which recalls the format of Scouts or Guides and for this reason may be tempting for pushy parents when considering their kid’s social circles. There would be of course other motivations…a sort of ‘straight’ camp perhaps for some teenagers that way inclined or to discipline the badly behaved. Maybe there are just racist parents who want their offspring to inherit this characteristic and to defend it in blood. However, the overlying connotation of the Kommando Korps is fairly clear – get em’ while they’re young.