Unthinkable… 50 not out

The Irish Times ‘Unthinkable’ column started out as an intellectual experiment for World Philosophy Day in 2013. Over a year later, it has reached a half-century of columns, covering discussions from the nature of consciousness to the ethics of selfies. Showcasing Ireland’s philosophical talent – yes, it does exist – ‘Unthinkable’ continues every Tuesday in The Irish Times and irishtimes.com


Philosophical top trumps

(c) The Irish Times/Dearbhla Kelly


Humanity: Book Review

Why I love … Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover

A great book must have a big theme. It must be ambitious, and push the boundaries of conventional style. It must leave an impression, or create an impulse for change. Glover’s Humanity ticks all those boxes.

Crisscrossing history, psychology, philosophy and economics, he tries to answer that most pressing of questions: what drives one person to dehumanise another?

First published 15 years ago as Europe was emerging from the bloody Yugoslav conflict, Humanity draws the reader into a century of horror: lest we forget – the Nazi Holocaust; Stalin’s pogroms; China; Cambodia; Rwanda. This is a necessary remembering, a demonstration for all those crying “revolution” and thrusting ideology to the fore that violence once unleashed is uncontrollable.

War, in this analysis, is a trap. Protagonists bind themselves up in tribalism, procedure or pride. Glover’s account of the European psychosis which led to the first World War – basically a mixture of arrogance and stupidity – is not only illuminating from an historical viewpoint but highly instructive for today. He quotes RG Collingwood’s description of the Great War as “un unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect”, and there’s nothing to suggest human beings have become any more intelligent since.

Humanity is, however, a hopeful book. To guard against our worst natures, Glover identifies common causes of inhumanity: among them, normalising cruelty, maximising conformity and the shift to killing at a distance – now more achievable through modern technology. And he pinpoints the circumstances which allow for “a sense of shared humanity to break through”.

A memorable example comes from George Orwell’s account of the Spanish civil war. Orwell later described how a Fascist soldier came within sight, half-dressed and running, holding up his trousers with both hands: “I refrained from shooting at him … I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘fascist’, he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.”


Nov 6th 2014, The Irish Times.  Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42

The Catholic Church and the developing world

Essay for the Dublin Review of Books on three recent releases relating to the Catholic church and its impact on the developing world.

Joe Humphreys

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first pope from outside Europe in more than a millennium has drawn fresh attention to the Catholic Church’s role in the developing world. Pope Francis might be seen as an end product of those early European missionaries who stepped ashore in Latin America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

In Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi tells of one such encounter in 1532 when a Spanish priest encouraged invading soldiers to imprison and then execute an emperor of the Inca civilisation because he had dropped a holy book in his presence. Some seven thousand Inca warriors were slaughtered in the subsequent conflict.

Calderisi aims to assess the Catholic Church’s contribution across at least three continents over five hundred years in about two hundred and fifty pages. It’s the sort of task only a World Bank economist would have the confidence to attempt. As a popular and somewhat breezy treatment of the subject, his book stands at the other end of the spectrum to a brace of studies by Edmund M Hogan, Ireland’s foremost missionary historian.

– See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/fishers-of-men#sthash.Wlornrrf.dpuf

Cross and Scalpel: Jean-Marie Coquard among the Egba of Yorubaland, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 536 pp, £34.95, ISBN: 978-9780812874

Berengario Cermenati: Among the Ebira of Nigeria, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 288 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-9780811822

Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, by Robert Calderisi, Yale University Press, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300175127 – See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/fishers-of-men#sthash.Wlornrrf.dpuf

Would Savita be alive today if Galway doctor’s advice had been taken 30 years ago?

There is something especially powerful about a prophetic voice speaking from beyond the grave. Amid the large volume of correspondence released with the 1983 state papers was a letter from Dr Fergus Meehan, an obstetrician at University Hospital Galway, to then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald warning him about the likely consequences of the “pro-life” amendment.

One can’t called them “unforeseen” consequences because Dr Meehan, who described himself as Catholic and anti-abortion, spelt them out in great detail – pinpointing the risk to human life of introducing a constitutional ban on abortion that would tie the hands of treating doctors.

Identifying a hypothetical case with echoes of Savita Halappanavar’s, Dr Meehan warned that if the amendment was passed a pregnant woman undergoing life-threatening complications might die in hospital because a doctor “would rather wait until the foetal heart has disappeared”. His letter is reproduced in full here.

Perhaps social historians will give him some credit: a wise counsel to whom we failed to listen.

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Unthinkable: medicating for morality. Should we develop drugs that make us behave better?

The new year is a boom time for the self-help industry. Books on how to improve everything from your brain power to your sex life rush off the shelves amid a surge of subscriptions to gyms and language classes.

But is there a limit to how far we should improve ourselves? And are there ethical implications about the manner in which it is done?

This has become a hot topic in philosophy, with particular concerns raised about the increased use of pharmaceuticals for human enhancement. It is not only “smart drugs” that are coming on stream; people’s behaviour could be changed by, for instance, boosting levels of empathy.

While some believe this is dangerously close to “playing God”, others welcome the development. Among them are philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, whose argument in a recently published book, Unfit for the Future, provides today’s idea:
Artificial moral enhancement is now essential if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.

We discuss this, and the broader question of self-improvement, with Prof Bert Gordjin, director of the Institute of Ethics at DCU.

(continues…. with audio link, at:)


Unthinkable: Was Socrates right about the unexamined life?

Joe Humphreys          Fri Nov 22 2013            The Irish Times

In a bid to push beyond “common sense”, The Irish Times explores important ideas of the past, present and future through conversations with different thinkers.

The new column starts today, on foot of World Philosophy Day, and continues each Friday.


“The unexamined life is not worth living” How better to start this celebration of thought than with a classic: Socrates’s defiant statement at the trial that led to his execution. Recorded for posterity in Plato’s Apology, it has become a treasured saying of idlers, bookworms and moody introspectives down the ages. But surely something some guy said in Greece 2,500 years ago has little relevance today? Dr Catherine Kavanagh, president of the Irish Philosophical Society, begs to differ.



Say no to groupthink: how philosophy can transform learning

Why is there such resistance to teaching philosophy in Ireland?

Joe Humphreys          Tues, Nov 19 2013             The Irish Times

If philosophy had been on the curriculum 30 years ago, would we be in the same mess we’re in today? It’s a tantalising thought and the very sort of “what if?” question philosophers love to debate. But it’s being asked with deadly seriousness by an increasing number of educationalists.

“To help children think about what’s important to them, and why, is surely important to their education,” says Prof Joe Dunne who was, until recently, a principal lecturer at St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University. Citing US philosopher Michael Sandel’s idea that “statecraft involves soulcraft”, Dunne says philosophy can help students reflect on the sort of hidden values or “external goods” operating in society.

In a post-primary system where there’s a “fragmentation of subjects”, philosophy also “could get students to think more about knowledge in the round”.