On Time and Doing Our Epistemic Duty: The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Philosophers often consider that actions that are immoral are the result of a failure of duty on the part of their perpetrators. There would be two kinds of duty involved. Here is Mark Rowlands on this topic from his book The Philosopher and the Wolf. He is speaking in part about some highly unpleasant, extensive and frankly barbaric laboratory experiments on dogs carried out by three Harvard psychologists involving electric shocks and deliberately induced panic, pain and suffering.

On the one hand, there is a failure to do ones moral duty. The particular duty in question is to protect those who are defenceless against those who deem them inferior and therefore expendable. If this is not a basic moral obligation, it is difficult to imagine what it is.

There is, however, another kind of duty involved: something that philosophers call epistemic duty. This is the duty to subject one’s beliefs to the appropriate amount of critical scrutiny: to examine whether they are warranted by the available evidence and to at least attempt to ascertain whether or not there exists any countervailing evidence. Today we have scant regard for epistemic duty: so sparingly is it honoured that most people would not even regard it as a duty (and this, itself, is a failure of epistemic duty).

… Whenever we look closely at evil, in its various forms and guises, we will always find staring back at us failure of epistemic duty and failure of moral duty. Evil that is the result of explicit intentions to cause pain and suffering, and to enjoy doing so, is a rare exception.

Rowlands’ book is an interesting mixture of philosophical chat alongside instructions on how to rear and live with a wolf. Well, you never know, it might come in handy. The psychology of wolves and humans is compared and not always favourably. The philosophy is good and not stuffy although of course most readers will want to argue, and there is a very good discussion of time couched in psychological terms which compares the extended time of humans, created out of memories and anticipations, hopes, regrets and fantasies, for which the moment has no depth or meaning in itself, and that of his wolf, which resides almost entirely in the richness of the moment. Some years ago I read a study of feral children who grow up in the wild with no ‘civilising’ influences, and it was striking that those who are later re-integrated with human society invariably express a great sadness at having been torn from a vivid and vibrant life lived in the ‘now’, moment by moment, to be saddled with the dissipating distractions of the past and the present. Rowland discusses this difference of perception at some length and in an interesting way.

I found it an enjoyable book and I think any philosophically inclined animal lover would like it. The philosophy and psychology is not trite or simply derivative, there is some substance and insight to it, and the animal training advice seems spot on. From the perspective of anyone who wants the academic and scientific world to wake up and see what is right under their noses, the insanity and utter implausibility of the currently orthodox world-view and its disastrous consequences, it may be the short note on epistemic duty quoted above that will seem the most important passage.

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3 Responses to On Time and Doing Our Epistemic Duty: The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

  1. dondeg says:

    Interesting topic. Especially comparing human and animal psychology. As you point out, living in the now vs. living in the “now” of one’s thoughts. Thanks for the review, Pete. -Don

  2. johsh says:

    the trick is to define morality in terms of pure personal interest (it helps, “salvation”, or “elightenment” etc).

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