January 2011

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Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at jw@bway.net. I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will do so. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. This is in response to many of you who have expressed concern that spammers are finding your email address here. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Regarding some statements in your recent Rags and Bones column:

You write 'I have always been fascinated by Greek fire, the secret flame throwing technology, the formula for which supposedly died with the last emperor of Byzantium. Roger Crowley in "1453" (2005) gives the first explanation I have ever seen of the probable ingredients: crude oil mixed with wood resin to give it adhesive properties, heated in bronze containers, pressurized by a hand pump and then emitted through a nozzle and ignited by a flame.'

That lacks certain properties Greek Fire apparently had, in particular of igniting spontaneously on contact with water - which is rather more than just not going out. I have somewhere heard the conjecture that it consisted of pitch (derived from crude oil seepage, naturally leaking to the surface or as well water contamination, that had lost its lighter fractions through evaporation), quicklime (calcium oxide, prepared by roasting limestone or similar and preventing water from reaching it), sulphur and saltpetre (potassium nitrate, from the dried seepages of maturing manure). The proportions and methods of combining the ingredients were not given. In that, apparently water reacts with the quicklime to make slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), causing great heat, sufficient first to react the sulphur and saltpetre giving nitrogen oxides and then to ignite the pitch to burn in those oxides, after which the burning and the combining of some of the reaction products with the quicklime/slaked lime sustains the cycle; or, the cycle can be started with a flame. The Greek Fire projectors were loaded with it, then operated by simply forcing some water into them with no additional pressurising or heating required; the initial reactions within the projector were enough to provide further pressure, making it work as a Flame Fougasse.

You also write "A fascinating sidelight is that the people who deployed Greek fire were extremely close to the discovery of peaceful technologies: the same approach to heating and emitting a gas could have led to innovations in transportation, agriculture, etc. which were not to be made for centuries".

No, it couldn't. Until considerable development had taken place, those technologies were only practical with certain, very particular, cheap resource bases. That is why, for instance, early steam engines were totally impractical everywhere but in very high value tin mines or in coal mines with unsaleable scrap coal as a free by-product. Locomotives needed not only the developments made for coal mines but also a shortage of animal transport caused by the Napoleonic Wars (see http://www.johnquiggin.com/archives/001388.html), and so on.

"The release of the cables and their selective printing in the Times and other media is a highly interesting ethical spectacle". Are you seriously suggesting that you have to look them up in that London newspaper, and that none of your US ones are handling it at all?

"British barons stopped raiding and pillaging each other's fiefs when a government of the whole island took hold to prevent it".

No, they didn't, they stopped much earlier in England and Wales, after the Wars of the Roses, and much later in Scotland (in fact, the Campbells were still doing that under the aegis of enforcing the Act of Union).

By the way, some of your assertions about the lack of problems with homosexuals in armed forces (see the March, 2010 Rags and Bones), are inconsistent with the historical record. For instance, Alec Guinness records in his autobiography that, early in the Second World War, many of his fellow thespians of that persuasion contrived to get sent to an anti-aircraft battery near Sevenoaks to be together, with the result that discipline there deteriorated sharply as personal bonding over-rode due authority; he also records that the unit was dispersed after questions were asked about it in the House of Commons (where it should be on an independent record). I believe the tradition of that episode may have been reworked into a heterosexual format, as much writing by homosexuals was (e.g. Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter", parts of T.H.White's "Farewell, Victoria" and his Arthurian series, W.Somerset Maugham's "The Treasure", etc.), giving rise to the plot and incidents of the British film "Carry on, England" a generation later. Of course, this isn't simply a matter of the effects of homosexuality but rather of their interactions with an incompatible culture (as opposed to how things played out in, say, the Theban "Sacred Band" of Ancient Greece), but they are none the less real for all that; and, of course, we could reasonably anticipate poor interactions among mixed sex units of heterosexuals too, much as fictionally portrayed in that film.

Yours sincerely,


Dear Mr. Wallace:

In several of your articles including Natural Rights Don't Exist, you quoted the following statement by Alfred Ayers:

[F]undamental ethical conceptions are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur....[T]hey are mere pseudoconcepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a particular tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.

It precisely because this is an oft quoted and important concept to you that I want to comment upon it. To say, "You stole some money" is simply to assert a factual occurrence. To add ", You acted wrongly" asserts a further fact, ie. how I feel about or judge that event, no matter whether expressed explicitly or implied symbolically . What Ayer's dismisses as "simply evincing my moral disapproval", while it does not change the first fact that of the theft, it does contribute a very significant piece of information which gives the fact of the theft meaning.

Stealing money in itself has no more meaning than moving stones or giving money to the poor. It is only by inserting the event into a evaluative context that the level of discourse is raised from minimal to substantive. Moral approval or disapproval makes all the difference in the world. of man. As I see it, ethics is not most importantly a branch of theoretical philosophy but a critical preoccupation with aspects of human consciousness which are essential to the life of man as a social and potentially civilized being.

Peter Grossman