William Donaldson's Week: Philosophical, just like the fat one

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The Independent Online
I HAVE quite ignored the plight of Honest John, who, until recently, has been banged up in the secure wing at Wandsworth. Now he's been moved to the prison hospital, and a long, rambling letter received on Tuesday makes me think he's faking insanity before hopping over the wall.

My suspicions have been aroused not so much by his request that Michelle and I should pitch up on Friday with a ladder and a getaway car as by some remarks on my piece last week, in which, instead of discussing John Elway's inability to complete as many touchdown passes for the Broncos as for the opposition, I argued, against Paul Johnson, that Popper's philosophy was not a reliable guide to action.

Apart from complaining that I hadn't bailed him out (I had judged that the funds at my disposal - specifically, funds remitted by yourselves in re the little trollop who took me to the cleaners - would be better spent financing myself and Roger from Chicago in Ibiza), his animus seems to be against a composite Aunt Sally dubbed 'the Oxford Moralists', of which he regards Professor R M Hare as a constituent part and whose work he compares unfavourably with Popper's.

'A promise is a promise,' writes Honest John. 'Professor Hare? Not on your life. This was recently said on Neighbours by the fat one with the big arse and lips like a rubber plunger, thus proving herself a better guide to action than the Oxford Moralists, whose utilitarianism sanctions such abuses as the preventative punishment of offenders.

'Hare's consequentialist theory of morality led him to declare that 'whacking a suspect with a nightstick isn't universally wrong, but I wouldn't say that to a policeman'. I suggest that, instead of criticising Popper, a true philosopher in the Socratic tradition, you get cracking on El Independo.'

I was brooding on whether Hare's remark about policemen and nightsticks wasn't, in fact, an excellent guide to action - or, rather, to inaction - when I received a call from Professor Michael Dummett. Confident though I was that my arguments against Popper had been watertight, I went on full alert.

'According to my calculations,' said Professor Dummett, 'and I'm not being unduly boastful, I think, if I say that my best work has been on the foundations of mathematics, your piece last week contained at least one serious mistake.'

My heart sank. This wasn't a first-year student on the line.

'By my arithmetic,' the Professor continued, 'Elway has completed five touchdown passes for the Broncos and just three for the opposition. I would argue, too, that your general criticisms of Elway are quite unfair. If you want short routes - look-ins, screen passes and curl patterns - a quarterback who dumps the ball off to his tight ends, you go with Bernie Kosar.'

'But what about the philosophy?' I said.

5 'I didn't see any of that. I noticed, however, that your original work has been on the mind/body problem, but I confess I haven't read it.'

'My belief that the ghost in my machine has been black since birth,' I said, 'has made me question whether I'm a walking, Rylean category mistake; alternatively, whether advances in computer technology haven't to some extent reinstated Cartesian dualism.'

'I can't chat,' Professor Dummett said. 'Neighbours starts in five minutes. 'A promise is a promise', as the fat one said last week. Sounds right to me, not that I'm a moral philosopher, of course.'

'But I'd like some advice. Should I spring Honest John or clip the little trollop?'

'In my view,' Professor Dummett said, 'you should clip the little trollop, but if you want moral philosophy I suggest you read Hare, not least his dispute with Geach (Theories Of Ethics, Oxford, 1967), which contains the latter's celebrated Ants In Your Pants argument. Better still, I'd suggest you get cracking on El Independo. Here in Oxford, we're keenly looking forward to it.'

I rang up Professor Hare and, by way of introduction, told him that my field was the mind/body problem.

'My belief,' I said, 'that the ghost in my machine has been black since . . . '

'Let's not go into that again,' said Professor Hare. 'Neighbours starts in five minutes. 'A promise is a promise', as the fat one said last week, and I'd agree with her.'

I pressed on anyway. 'Your dispute with Geach in which he deployed his celebrated Ants In Your Pants argument . . . '

'My argument, if you please,' said Professor Hare. 'Wishing, in Imperative Sentences (Mind, 1949), to distinguish between moral judgements and imperatives, I pointed out that if you want a man to take his trousers off, you'll more readily succeed by using a descriptive phrase such as: 'You have a scorpion crawling up your trouser-leg' than by saying: 'Take your trousers off'.

'This doesn't mean that I take moral judgements to be primarily descriptive. I take them to be primarily commendatory, with some descriptive content. Geach, who wants to say that the word 'good' is purely descriptive, used his Ants In Your Pants argument as a vulgarised version of mine. Alas, he fails to distinguish between 'commend' and 'recommend'. I'm a 'prescriptivist', but moral judgements should never be confused with propaganda.'

'You wouldn't advise me, then, as to whether I should spring Honest John or clip the little trollop?' I said.

'Neither,' the Professor said. 'You should get cracking on El Independo. How is Geoff Atkinson?'

'In the pink, I'm glad to say.'

'Good, good,' the Professor said.

'Are you using 'good' in its descriptive or commendatory . . . ,' I began.

'Don't you start,' the Professor said.

Bad luck, Honest John. It's back to work on El Independo, and who says the Oxford Moralists don't tell you what to do.