Obligation, anarchism, and football



[Originally published in Humanist in Canada]
By Bob Lane

It might be useful to consider the questions of political theory, and the language used in
the answers offered over the centuries. “How can we explain why it is that the great
majority of people seem to voluntarily accept their inequality?” is the central or crucial
question in the field of political theory. This question, as Hume noted, comes from the
observation that, in fact, it is so easy for the few to rule over the many. Why is this the
Sometimes the answer is offered that we have an obligation to obey the State. What is the nature of this obligation? Where does it come from? Can we reduce all political
obligation to the application of a formula?

As Thomas McPherson puts it in his book Political Obligation:

“The philosopher’s interest in political obligation has been mainly in the problem of the grounds of political obligation — that is, in the questions: “Why ought we to obey the government?” (p. 4)
And, if we cannot find a ground in political obligation then we have anarchy.

First, notice the difference between:
(1) Why ought we obey the government? and (2) Why do we obey the government?
The answers to (2) are usually in the terms of certain facts: because the government has all the power; because it would be prudent to obey; because the government knows best; etc. But one cannot answer a question about what people ought to do simply by pointing out what they do do. And yet there is a logical relationship between the two questions, a relationship that can be stated simply: “ought‟ implies “can‟. We cannot claim that one ought to do something which one cannot do. Philosophers have offered many theories attempting to establish the grounds for political obligation that answer the question “Why ought one obey the government?‟

I propose to look at several of them now and argue that all are logically flawed. The
theories are:
1. Divine Right (St. Augustine or St. Paul)
2. Natural Law (Plato)
3. Contract Theory (Hobbes, Locke)
4. Social Utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill)
5. Naive Anarchism (the marshal‟s wife in High Noon)
6. Theoretical Anarchism (Robert Paul Wolff)

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The Sphinx

Traditionally, religions have regarded spirituality as an integral aspect of religious experience. Many do still equate spirituality with religion, but declining membership of organized religions and the growth of secularism in the western world has given rise to a broader view of spirituality.

Secular spirituality carries connotations of an individual having a spiritual outlook which is more personalized, less structured, more open to new ideas/influences, and more pluralistic than that of the doctrinal faiths of organized religions. At one end of the spectrum, even some atheists are spiritual. While atheism tends to lean towards skepticism regarding supernatural claims and the existence of an actual “spirit”, some atheists define “spiritual” as nurturing thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are in harmony with a belief that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale.

In contrast, those of a more ‘New-Age’ disposition see spirituality as the active connection to some force/power/energy/spirit, facilitating a sense of a deep self.
For some, spirituality includes introspection, and the development of an individual’s inner life through practices such as meditation, prayer and contemplation. Some modern religions also see spirituality in everything: see pantheism and neo-Pantheism. In a similar vein, Religious Naturalism has a spiritual attitude towards the awe, majesty and mystery it sees in the natural world.

“If there is a sin against life,” Albert Camus wrote, “it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

Albert Einstein:
The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
• The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; It is the source of all true art and science.
• The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.

Lit Crit



by Bob Lane

“Talking does not make the world or even pictures, but talking and pictures participate in making each other and the world as we know them.” Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols has pointed correctly in this statement to the inevitable association between works of art and the language used to talk about those works. In the last century, it was believed that the exclusion of subject matter (landscapes, people, family scenes) from painting would disentangle the image on the canvas (or the words of a poem) from literary associations and clear the way for a direct response of the eye to optical data. The hope was to reduce art to speechlessness. An “Art of the Real” exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art described its selection as chunks of raw reality totally liberated from language. “Modern art,” writes one recent critic “has eliminated the verbal correlative from the canvas.” Perhaps. But if a work of today no longer has a verbal correlative, it is because its particular character has been dissolved in a sea of words.

At no time in history have more words been written in defence of art, in explanation of what it “really is,” in defence of its “uniqueness,” in the production of manifestoes of explanation and genesis. To describe a striped canvas and a striped tablecloth in the same terms is to commit an artistic faux pas of great proportion much like the child who, because he didn’t understand the rules of the game, remarked that the emperor was naked. The language of art criticism today is a subtle and abstract means to create the idea of art works in conceptual framework of theories instead of in the perceptual framework of the senses. Recently two young artists in Latin America contrived a Happening that was reported in detail in the press but never took place, so their “work of art” consisted of their own news releases and the resulting interviews, accounts,, and comments. Here the “work of art” was only what was said about it. There was no “picture” only “talking”.

Other “artists” are using nature as a canvas. By rearranging rocks (or grinding up bottles to cover a B.C. Island) and making trenches in the dirt, they hope to show that there is no real distinction between a work of art and natural objects. But, like the child in the “Emperor’s Clothes” this is to function without knowing the rules of the game. “Art” implies artifact. Its Indo European base is from “ar ” which means to join, fit together. Certainly Goodman is right when he says that talking does not make pictures (or by extension any work of art, except, of course, in the obvious way that talking makes, e.g. oral poetry, where the act of talking is the art form) but participates in making them. One need only look at any history of art book to note the way in which words about pictures are used to classify and categorize those pictures. But the pictures are real. The works of art are there in time and space, have an existence of their own carved out of the flux of that time and space. Talking and pictures are married, but form allows the marriage.

In literature, the art form closest to me in terms of training and interest, one finds not only the primacy of words, but also words about words.

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Sunday’s Sermon Review: On Morality


Title: Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom
Author: Darcia Narvaez
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-70655-0

Review by Bob Lane, Professor Emeritus Vancouver Island University

Narvaez writes, “Today there is often no logical grounding for morality and therefore no need to behave morally.” (249) In this interdisciplinary, well-researched, readable book she attempts to find, describe, and present arguments for that missing logical grounding with suggestions for the development of better people and better societies. The dozen chapters that comprise the book can be seen as either a paradigm shift or a sea change in moral philosophy. She advocates a care ethic based on a wide array of biological, environmental, and epigenetic factors.

Who doesn’t remember the work of Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics and language acquisition? Chomsky taught us that there is a universal grammar and pointed as evidence to the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Kids know more about language than we can explain by pointing to what they have been taught. Similarly, Narvaez argues that “(1) morality emerges from biology and embodiment – our lived experience; (2) our morality is multi-dimensional and arises from our evolved brain propensities. Through epigenetics and developmental plasticity…” we grow our moral sense.  (3) Cultures are malleable and can either “encourage or discourage our highest human nature.” (4) Humans can “self-author virtue and wisdom capacities” to change culture. As with language acquisition we come into world biologically prepared for the development of a moral sense.

During the first half of the 20th century, linguists who theorized about the human ability to speak did so from the behaviourist perspective that prevailed at that time. They therefore held that language learning, like any other kind of learning, could be explained by a succession of trials, errors, and rewards for success. In other words, children learned their mother tongue by simple imitation, listening to and repeating what adults said.

This view became radically questioned, however, by the American linguist Noam Chomsky. For Chomsky, acquiring language cannot be reduced to simply developing an inventory of responses to stimuli, because every sentence that anyone produces can be a totally new combination of words. When we speak, we combine a finite number of elements—the words of our language—to create an infinite number of larger structures—sentences.

Moreover, language is governed by a large number of rules and principles, particularly those of syntax, which determine the order of words in sentences. The term “generative grammar” refers to the set of rules that enables us to understand sentences but of which we are usually totally unaware. It is because of generative grammar that everyone says “that’s how you say it” rather than “how that’s you it say”, or that the words “Bob”and “him” cannot mean the same person in the sentence “Bob loves him” but can do so in “Bob knows that his father loves him.”

Even before the age of 5, children can, without having had any formal instruction, consistently produce and interpret sentences that they have never encountered before. It is this extraordinary ability to use language despite having had only very partial exposure to the allowable syntactic variants that led Chomsky to formulate his “poverty of the stimulus” argument, which was the foundation for the new approach that he proposed in the early 1960s.

In Chomsky’s view, the reason that children so easily master the complex operations of language is that they have innate knowledge of certain principles that guide them in developing the grammar of their language. In other words, Chomsky’s theory is that language learning is facilitated by a predisposition that our brains have for certain structures of language.

But what language? For Chomsky’s theory to hold true, all of the languages in the world must share certain structural properties. And indeed, Chomsky and other generative linguists like him have shown that the 5000 to 6000 languages in the world, despite their very different grammars, do share a set of syntactic rules and principles. These linguists believe that this “universal grammar” is innate and is embedded somewhere in the neuronal circuitry of the human brain. And that would be why children can select, from all the sentences that come to their minds, only those that conform to a “deep structure” encoded in the brain’s circuits.

In a similar move in moral philosophy some recent work in experimental philosophy suggests that we may grow a morality in a way similar to the way we grow a language.

Do children have an innate pre-disposition to make certain sorts of moral judgement? Is there such a thing as a universal moral grammar? John Mikhail of Georgetown University suspects that there is an innate basis to our morality analogous to Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device. This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.

For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*.

Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.

The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and Surgeon (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it?

Drawing on recent research in biology, neurobiology, psychology and anthropology Narvaez presents a compelling case for emotion as a tool kit used “to organize and coordinate action.” She seems to agree with David Hume who famously observed, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” She brings nature and nurture, reason and emotion, individual and nature together again instead of splitting them asunder. She spends a fair amount of time writing about the positive aspects of our ancestors in their hunting and gathering societies where a care ethic seems to have been an essential part of survival. She is on the side of Rousseau and the noble savage as opposed to Hobbes and his description of pre-contract life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Throughout the book Narvaez emphasizes the importance of early childhood care and nurturing because “Early life sets up neuronal value systems – that is,  which emotional systems will dominate personality and social interaction.” (64) In short, we grow a language; we grow a moral sense. We grow a soul. And when that soul is properly nurtured – with love and care, safety and imagination, then that love and empathy will extend to other animals and to the Earth itself.

The book is filled with charts and drawings – each of the twelve chapters has its share of instructive figures as well as useful summaries at the conclusion of the discussions. But it also has some fine little stories to emphasize a point or provide a window into the heart and mind of the author. It will be an extremely useful textbook in philosophy, psychology, and interdisciplinary studies, as well as a good read for anyone interested in morality and its genesis. One concept she refers to often is “essence” which she seems to think is descriptive of the state we humans could achieve if we would only pay close attention to the early care of our children as we help them through loving care to develop not only a language but also a moral sense.

A flavour of the book? It concludes: When our cultures and imaginations rejoin the biotic community, we will cherish and care for the magnificence of our dearest friend, Nature. We will not only love it, but heal it. We will find our true essence in the loving and being with. The universe sings. Can we hear it? (307)


Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.

More philosophy . . .

Key terms in philosophy

  1. Axiology is the study of the good. Where do moral rules come from? What is the good life? Are there moral truths?
  2. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What is knowledge? How does it differ from belief? What is the nature of evidence? What is truth? Certainty?
  3. Metaphysics is the study of reality. Dualism? Monism? What is real? Universals or particulars?
  4. Ontology is the study of being. If we take an inventory of the universe what do we find? Matter/mind?
  5. Logic is the study of argument. Deductive/inductive. Valid/invalid. Strong/weak.

For Plato:

  1. axiology: the Good is knowable and fixed; i.e., ethics can be taught; rules of conduct exist independent of time and place
  2. epistemology: knowledge without experience is possible
  3. metaphysics: universals are real; particulars are trivial
  4. ontology: the real is transcendent and accessible only through reason; dualism describes the world
  5. Reductio ad absurdum is a mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable. It is a style of reasoning that has been employed throughout the history of mathematics and philosophy from classical antiquity onwards.

Limits of reason

Reason as a way of knowing has always been at the heart of philosophical discussion. The current and recent centuries are no different.

  • It is difficult if not impossible to separate “reason” from the history of philosophy for an analysis, per simpliciter, for every philosopher has some take on reason since it is the heart of the philosophical enterprise.
  • Historically the conversation has been one of the pre-eminence of reason as a faculty for knowing. In that respect the initial conflict in modern philosophy was between revelation and reason. Descartes tried to bridge that gap by arguing that one could reason one’s way to one’s own existence and then to the necessary existence of God. He then attempted to build an epistemology on that foundation.
  • For Descartes it is the will that causes us to make errors and not a faulty faculty of reason.
  • The empiricists found flaws in Cartesian epistemology arguing that there were no innate ideas at all and that we humans are blank slates written upon by experience.
  • Kant tried valiantly to put the humpty dumpty together again by bringing empiricism and rationalism together in his synthetic-aprioris.
  • Psychology, as it broke away from philosophy, proposed behaviourism as the theory, a variation on some stimulus, response, reward (SRR) description.
  • Linguistics, in the person of Noam Chomsky, argued (see his Cartesian Grammar) that we know more than we should if behaviourism is true. The famous debates between Chomsky and Skinner are central to understanding these ideas.
  •  Russell’s work in logic and mathematics shows us that knowing how is more important than knowing that, since all logical systems including complex mathematical systems are based upon tautologies.
  • Cognitive Science departments are established with faculty from psychology, philosophy, and computer science to investigate the exciting idea of artificial intelligence. Most of the AI work is heavily Cartesian, with transcendental “minds” housed in machines as well as in bodies.
  • Biology takes the forefront with fascinating science showing that brains are minds and that reason is a “faculty” to be found not only in male philosophers, but also in females and in other “lower” species.
  • Reason, it seems, has a benefit for survival of our species. It is far superior to magic, religious mumbo-jumbo, pot smoking, channeling, ESP, crystal gazing, Freudian repressed urges, authority of church or state, and the like at presenting us with testable information about the world and ourselves. It allows us to search for causal relations even though we cannot prove that the proposition “Every event has a cause” is true.