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Fact and ValueReview - Fact and Value
Essays on Ethics and Metaphysics for Judith Jarvis Thomson
by Alex Byrne, Robert Stalnaker and Ralph Wedgwood (editors)
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Simon Kirchin, Ph.D.
Nov 11th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 45)

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, U.K.


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