It’s my favourite philosophical thought experiment. There is a reason that I find the Sorites Paradox compelling, insightful and very important: it is everywhere and has ramifications right across the board. I’ll get onto it later.
In my opinion, it goes hand in hand with conceptual nominalism – the belief that universals and abstract ideas do not exist “out there” but exclusively in our minds, constructed by them, whether agreed to by consensus or not. But before we get onto these matters, let’s rewind over the last week or so.
In the UK recently, we had our own Black Lives Matter moment when the statue of Edward Colston was ripped down in Bristol. We had many people saying “about time” and many others questioning this very “un-British” act of rebellion. Many of this latter group had never heard of Colston, much less knew the horrors he caused or represents. His plaque reads:
“Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895.”
For those of you who don’t know, Bristol is the main UK port that is closest to America, and so it became a crucial trading spot for centuries, most notably concerning the trade in slaves. The FT’s excellent article from a few years ago explains:
Edward Colston’s past was no secret. He had risen to the highest levels of the Royal African Company, which then held the British monopoly on the transatlantic slave trade. During his time there, some 84,500 people were forced on to the RAC’s slave ships from west Africa to the Caribbean.
Conditions on board were so poor that, according to research by historian Roger Ball, about a quarter died en route. Yet the city continued to celebrate the slave trader until as recently as two years ago. He has been called the “father of the city” and its “patron saint”. In 2016, schoolchildren were preached a sermon in which his family motto was quoted: “Go, and do thou likewise.”
It is only now, more than 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade, that the anti-Colston movement has gained momentum. Lake, 38, is part of a new protest group energised by global efforts to bring down symbols of racial oppression, from statues of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to Confederate statues in the southern United States. Bristol campaigners have won significant victories, such as persuading the city’s biggest music venue, the Colston Hall, to change its name. Their current target is the statue of Colston, which still stands. But the campaign has exposed deep divisions. For many African-Caribbean Bristolians, the dethroning of Colston is a first step in recognising both their contribution to the city and the continuing discrimination they face: according to a report last year, the Runnymede Trust think-tank found that Bristol shows a greater disparity between white and minority ethnic groups than any other part of the UK outside London on measures of education, employment, health and housing.
Parts of the white population are infuriated by the anti-Colston movement. “When you talk to a lot of Bristolians, like I do, you find they want to move on, they don’t want to keep going on about slavery. They don’t want to be made to feel guilty or ashamed,” says Mark Steeds, a pub landlord and anti-Colston campaigner. “But the problem is, it hasn’t been addressed.”
There are many connections to poverty, Brexit, tradition and so on with these debates, and the article does a good job at presenting them. For many, Colston’s abhorrent slave trading is balanced with him being a philanthropist. Well, he was a sectarian one at that, and being a mass-murdering philanthropist still means you are a mass murderer.
I had to have conversations recently with people close to me to explain this. They thought the tearing down of the statue was terrible. I asked, “If you were a Jew, how would you feel about having to pass a statue of Hitler or Himmler every day of your working life?”; so on and so forth. I explained the stats above and what he did, and the beliefs he had to have in order for him to be able to justify his activity. I explained that statues are idols, and that this man, his actions, were being idolized. I explained the context of Bristol to them, and its deep and divisive connection to slavery.
And yet, it was water off a duck’s back. They were unconvinced.
Cognitive dissonance, eh!
For me, this statue being torn down was a no brainer. I wonder what detractors felt about Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down with the help of US Marines. And Hitler? Stalin? It’s well worth reading this article on the history of tearing down statues.
The Kaepernick Effect: “Don’t tear it down, do it peacefully and put it in a museum!”
These same people with whom I was arguing had never heard of Colin Kaepernick and presumed taking a knee, in the States, was all about Floyd. There’s a nice double-edged interpretation of the knee. I had to explain that Kaepernick peacefully protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games and was castigated for it, publicly by the POTUS and the VP and every conservative lawmaker and commentator you could think of. Remember Laura Ingraham’s gun with “stand” on it? That’s FOX News for you.
He lost his job and was publicly eviscerated.
Peaceful protest is what white people call for and promptly ignore, and then scream for in the face of large scale, less respectful protests.
This is what happened with Colston. Nothing happened. For a long time. And so the people took matters into their own hands, and, all of sudden, action is taking place regarding all number of statues and whatnot.
Where getting rid of the Colston statue is obvious to me, the same logic should apply to the Confederate leaders. Think what they stood for – the breaking up of the Union, the sustaining of slavery and thus the slave trade, and so on. Why the US should have statues and military bases named after these guys is not only deeply inappropriate, but wholly bizarre. You would only commemorate the losers in such a way if they stood for something utterly noble and morally righteous.
Which they most certainly did not. Unless you are racist.
So these statues need to come down.
As a result, in London, the statue of Robert Milligan (merchant and slave owner – 500 at his plantations at his death) was proactively removed.
Now, there is talk about all sorts of statues. In the UK, there is talk of statues of:
- Winston Churchill (who wanted his 1955 re-election slogan to be “Keep England White”)
- Nelson’s Column (outspoken in his opposition to abolition, tried to stop William Wilberforce)
- Sir Thomas Guy of Guy’s Hospital fame (amassed his fortune largely on selling slaves)
- Jan Smuts
- Robert Clive
- Earl Mountbatten
- Charles James Napier
- William Beckford
- Robert Geffrye
You get the picture. Go research the names to get more information on them.
We have also had Gone with the Wind temporarily removed from HBO Max until they can find accompanying material, as well as the “Don’t mention the war!” episode of Fawlty Towers due to the language/racial slurs and opinions of the Major in it (as well as other concerns). It gets messy because the point of the episode seems to be punching up at the opinions of people like the Major. It’s whether it’s necessary to even express it in those ways any more, I guess. This sort of behaviour is not unusual, just more marked in this day and age:
While traditional TV channels used to simply quietly stop repeating old shows that were no longer considered appropriate, the advent of streaming means catch-up services need to constantly reassess their back catalogues, attracting publicity in the process.
But where do we draw the line as to what is okay for a statue and what is inappropriate?
The Slippery Slope and Sand Dunes
My favourite philosophical thought experiment, if you can call it that, and as many of my readers might know of me, is the Sorites Paradox. It can be defined as follows:
The sorites paradox (sometimes known as the paradox of the heap) is a paradox that arises from vague predicates. A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?
The paradox arises in this way:
The word “sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap. The paradox is so named because of its original characterization, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. The paradox goes as follows: consider a heap of sand from which grains are individually removed. One might construct the argument, using premises, as follows:
1000000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)
Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grain) eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand.). Read (1995) observes that “the argument is itself a heap, or sorites, of steps of modus ponens“:
- 1000000 grains is a heap.
- If 1000000 grains is a heap then 999999 grains is a heap.
- So 999999 grains is a heap.
- If 999999 grains is a heap then 999998 grains is a heap.
- So 999998 grains is a heap.
- If …
- … So 1 grain is a heap.
What this means is that there are no definite, objective lines of demarcation. When things exist on continua, we pragmatically invent lines to separate one idea from another. Baby, toddler, child, adolescent, young adult, adult, middle-aged, pensioner: test ideas and lines differ from time to time and from society to society. Abstract ideas, like such categorisations, and such as morality, personhood, heroes, chairs (as ideas), redness and so on, only exist in the minds of the agents who conceive them. There is no realm “out there” where these abstract ideas exist.
My idea of what a hero is will be different from yours and any other person’s. When I look at the chair, I get a sense of chairness from it and have an understanding of the idea of a chair. However, a chair might feel like a bed to a cat, or to an alien it could be something entirely different, or to someone from the Amazon Rainforest, yet again something different. this is because there is no objective idea of what a chair is that our minds tap into. It is not top-down epistemology but bottom-up mental construction. Definitions are usually functional so that a chair fulfills the idea of being a chair by fulfilling the function it provides to the people who are perceiving it.
What this means is that every single abstract idea is constructed by the conceiver.
This is what is going on with the statues. I can easily see where the statues at this end of the line are inappropriate – Colston – but it gets harder in the middle where we have an arbitrary and subjective line that demarcates the movement from unacceptable to acceptable. There is no definite right or wrong here. There are the personal opinions and offence taken by people subjectively, all of which need, or need not, be reflected in society around them and us, though laws, behaviour and culture.
We are seeing living evidence of these ideas of conceptual nominalism and issues of sand dunes and the fact that they are at least pragmatically and prima facie true. You might believe in some aether where these moral absolutes and categories exist, but no one can access that aether even if we did believe it existed (it doesn’t); so in the meantime, let’s assume it doesn’t and go about the wrangle in trying to achieve a consensus on these moral issues.
Who Gets to Define and Arbitrate Offense?
This debate has been raging for some time now, and both sides get very irate. Who decides if something is offensive or not? One online piece opines:
And that’s why the examples of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, and Gauguin are such good ones. The professor could claim that these pictures are art, or inspirational, or kitsch and genuinely mean it, while the student could claim that the objectification or the overt sexuality is immoral, and hold to the belief with all his or her heart. Both genuinely believe their claims and both want the best for the other person, but this doesn’t resolve the issue, because one of them is going to have to give way. If it is the professor, than he or she is being “censored” and the student is being “intolerant,” but if the student has to endure the images, then he or she is facing a “hostile environment” and the professor is being “insensitive.” Certainly, someone has to win and someone has to lose, but a more interesting scenario is the possibility that one of them might be right and one of them might be wrong.
Which is it? Are there objectively offensive images and if so, who decides what they are? I’d love to read your thoughts below.
No there aren’t and this is the problem for many people who are trying to navigate these waters with abject certainty. The one comment to the piece nails the important questions in this debate, if it also misses the mark in places:
Who determines what is offensive and what is not, in my view, is perhaps the first question related to this issue. An offending act causes anger, resentment, or affront. In other words: being offended is an emotional reaction. In other, other words: “I’m offended” equals “My feeling are hurt.”
So the first follow-up question is: Who’s feelings matter more? Let’s suppose I say or do something that you find offensive. If my words or actions make me happy, but anger you, who’s feelings are “more important” ? My happiness, or your anger? The offending symbol or the offending word inflict no tangible damage, so it’s difficult for the offended to say they are hurt by the offense. This is not to say that emotional pain is not real, but strong words from one’s father, spouse, or boss is in a different category than a bearded stranger in the swamp quoting the Bible.
In today’s America if a person is offended, he or she assumes that they have the right to control the “offender”. So the next question we must ask is: What gives the offended the right to control the behavior of the offender? It goes like this: You offend me. I therefore have the right to control you and/or your behavior. Take down that flag; don’t say that word; don’t do what offends me. I’m offended so I’m in charge and I demand the you, as the offender, be fined, fired, or otherwise punished for something I don’t like. But you must stop because I say so! Don’t forget, I’m offended! I contend that offense assumes no rights. Remember, offense is really nothing more than a gripe and a more sophisticated, socially acceptable way of saying: “You hurt my feelings”.
Your next-to-last sentence is very telling about where we are as a society. To state that one of them is right and one of them is wrong assumes a moral standard. So perhaps a third question is: “How is right and wrong determined”? Our society purports that there is no moral standard – what is right for you is right for you. Without an objective source of morality, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Absent of a moral standard, all we have is opinion. Without an objective moral standard tolerance is no better than intolerance, it’s just your preference.
So in summary – absent of a standard of right or wrong the only measuring stick we have are the hurt feelings of the offended which in turn grant him or her the right to control another person’s behavior. Tell me how this makes sense.
It’s all about consensus. There’s no other meaningful way of arbitrating this. But what if, using decent rational arguments, most of the people are “wrong”?
Education, education, education. Critical thinking. Logic. Rationality.
What about, say, Churchill, then? I guess the point is I don’t have an answer. It’s too tricky to say one way or another. He may annoy some people with his views, but the rest of his history will probably balance the argument for most people to keep statues of him. That’s how consensus works. Will that evaluation change over time for many? Who knows. The problem is that humans love certainty, but so much about this world is uncertain.
Should I buy organic, local or seasonal? Well, there will be pros and cons to each, and it depends what metric you use as an axiom: carbon footprint, convenience, biodiversity, pollution? If I’m feeling biodiversity-y, then I’m lumping for organic. “But all the extra land needed means a lack of biodiversity elsewhere!” “Okay, but if that elsewhere will be built on, better an organic farm…”
Answers are difficult to come by with any sort of obvious certainty and we don’t like a world without answers, a world with unknowns. Heck, that’s part of the reason gods were invented.
Right and wrong are arrived at by consensus, absent of any objective demarcations. Even if you did believe that God underwrites morality, this helps you not one jot in arbitrating this area because you would have to know what God thinks on the matter and then have to subjectively interpret it anyway.
But God is, as ever, silent.
So that leaves us. We need to decide what to do by consensus. This, pragmatically speaking, means getting out to vote for people who most represent our views.
Get out and vote.
Or spread the word and talk to people about these ideas. If you are offended, then you need to educate people as to why and persuade them to agree with you, and vice versa.
But many people are inoculated to reason, stuck in their ways. True. And they get to vote, too. In some lost cause cases, we have to wait for generations to pass before younger, fresher ideas come to fruition. If this takes too long, then expect some bumpy points in the road towards the future. But with every protest, there needs to be understanding and persuasion and a real will to change things (democratically) for the good to accompany them. In reality, though, this simply means that, often, a chunk of people in any given context are going to be annoyed (perhaps vehemently so) with a moral decision or evaluation. Someone will always be offended in some way. It would be nice to be on the right side of history, though. I don’t want to be someone who, viewed decades or centuries down the line, was seen to support Colston and slavery.
In the context of the US, this might look like Biden taking on board ideas from the left (which is already happening), more progressive ideals, whilst Trump bolshily solidifies in his rightist defiance. The polls will decide whose approach will win through. Times, they are a-changin’, one hopes.
In the marketplace of ideas, access to true and proper knowledge is paramount. This is what is so scary about the dictatorial tendencies of people like Trump who want to control the media. The media needs to improve, for sure, but not really in the way that Trump intends…
Life is messy, morality is messy, philosophy is messy. Statues and ideas fall into simple categories: ones that are A-okay, ones that obviously suck, and a whole bunch of those in the grey areas of thought that require a whole heap of arguing over. We can see a sand dune and label it, we can see a few grains and label them, but we get stuck when there is a duneish bunch of sand that could go either way. And more people are going to end up being annoyed at digital decisions regarding those ones in the middle, because, like Brexit, the population will be more evenly split.
My solution? Make abstract statues in future. Anyone can take anything from them, and there won’t be a right or a wrong for sure.
Actually, people will argue over anything. Why build a statue when you could fund a hospital wing…?
Life is tiring.
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