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The Philosophical Challenges of Ethics and Politics - Parts I - IV Iraklion 2006




The conference in Heraklion, Crete, 24 – 28 May, 2006 under the chair of the Mayor of Heraklion, Giannis Kourakis, had as main speaker Noam Chomsky, but there were also other important speakers such as Agnes Heller, Martin Jay, Clauss Offe, and many others. As indicated by a rich program lasting from Wednesday until Sunday, they will all address the tension field between ethics and politics.


A mayor as chairman of a philosophical conference

It could not come at a better time for the mayor of Heraklion, Giannis Kourakis. Municipal elections shall be held not only in Heraklion, Crete, but all over Greece in November, so a big event like this with huge publicity can give a boast to a politician’s reputation. This is especially guaranteed if you have a speaker like Noam Chomsky opening the conference for this critical intellect of American politics has a huge following in Greece. There is something like ‘spiritual affinity’ when morality and politics become a single stance as expressed in sentiments amongst Greece running high when speaking out against the bombardment of the Serbs in the Kosovo war of 1999 and now with regards to what America is doing in Iraq.

Even more so, given especially the topic of the conference, it becomes a highly interesting question on how the mayor will deal in the aftermaths of such a conference with the ethical questions that are expected to be articulated when bringing together so many gifted philosophers, intellectuals and thinkers from all over the world. What can and should be directed then at local politicians especially when it comes, for instance, to safeguarding the environment rather than letting one building speculation after another ruin both the city and the countryside? Heraklion as biggest city of Crete poses here more than a challenge when it comes to one sided development ruining almost everything else in its wake. Nevertheless it speaks for itself that Mayor Giannis Kourakis acts as chairman of such a conference as it is said that he enjoys a high reputation and counts as someone who has done a great deal to alter the conditions of urbanity in Heraklion.

The city of Heraklion, Crete

Heraklion as the biggest city of Crete is at one and the same time a focal point of much speculative fever which has broken out once EU money started to come into Greece. A lot of money has been pouring into the island since then, in particular foreign investors seeking opportunities primarily in real estate and tourism business enterprises. Observers say this has all but destroyed the physical beauty of the island and with it many Cretan qualities, including hospitality.

The Cretans are famous for their hospitality once they open up their hearts. They give then everything. They will not let the visitors pay for anything while inviting them to join the Cretan way of life. This means till late into the night letting the Cretan music move the dancers faster and faster over the floor until one of the musicians would pull out a gun and fire off a shot into the night air. Intensity of life! There is a strong desire to express such compulsions. It leaves its mark on the people.

Heraklion greets one from the port. There can be seen when walking from the port to the city centre along the coastline the Venetian castle but it seems to limb badly through the changing times as if such cultural heritage does not matter. Neglect is one message. Another is what counts, namely new investments even if it means new constructions besides old flagrant ones.

Such money has brought with it a night life scene with one bar next to the other as if life is to be spent in these places on the basis of 24 hours a day. Like fish in shallow waters no one seems to realize how such transformation of the city centre serves but one purpose and therefore looses out in so many other ways.

As one man who lives in Heraklion would put it, everything has become so expensive here that it is more economical to go to Athens to do the shopping there. An expensive city has, therefore, to deal with other problems than one which savours a different way of life, away from the usual consumption of life.

Heraklion shows what transformations in a relative short time can bring about. The city has grown so quickly with still more investment pouring in, but it has lead to such an over commercialization that a new kind of ugliness is spreading like wild fire while in its wake there are left behind many incomplete stories of stranded existences. Walking through the city it shows how the partly modernised urban grid twists itself like bent metal around the historical veins and locations but without any regard for physical constraints nor a sense as to where things are heading towards.

There seems to be no authentic answer to this contrast between luxury prone divulging shops or bars and in misery stricken urban poverty. Even casualness has here a high prize. It starts with not finding a parking place while the not caring for how things shall work out receives a determined thrust or fake belief that things will work out in the end because there is a solution for everything.

This means the city reflects such haphazard guesses when it comes to planning and lets things develop not how it should be but how it works. That it strangles at times the traffic flow while at other times everything goes at even higher speed does not seem to bother the people. They mind only if they cannot see a way out to the eternal quest for money. It is a tough fight since everyone knows everyone else and by a long shot it is not to anybody’s advantage that the other knows too much. Intimacy can turn here easily into violent and explosive argumentations. It puts a definite strain upon local politics and with it goes the peculiar rhythm between sleepy bureaucrats, hectic life on the streets outside and then the larger, even concentric circles drawn by those wielding and reeling in power.

No wonder then that Crete and with it Heraklion is called the ‘green’ island, and not so much for its rich vegetation but for staying as only part in Greece loyal to the PASOK party especially when everyone else voted for Nea Democratia in March 2004 after nearly twenty years of power by PASOK. Crete is and always has been special. At the fore front is Heraklion as striving industrial and economic power house with plenty of energy but also loads of problems.

Sustainable development in Crete

Of interest is that the helplessness of those seeking an alternative way of life to such over consumption called otherwise waste of time resounds in derelict side streets where poverty mixes with neglect and cheap solutions which turn quickly if not old, then ugly especially when the sun is not shining. There are hotels which have outstayed their guests and only curtains flap wildly in the wind coming in over the harbour walls to oxidize these tiny and windy streets with a breeze of fresh air.

The dark side of all that money pouring into the island is that it creates more problems than can be handled by the political authorities. Everywhere can be seen the social, cultural and environmental impact of such one sided development. Hence the illusions of quick solutions as based on an economy of money become quickly blisters breaking open on those walls of hotels shut down. Nearby, in streets whose pavement reveals hasty construction, cars are parked everywhere. It makes walking on foot sometimes impossible. More so the negativity shuts out any friendly atmosphere.

The same goes for the coastline below the city and on its outskirts. Everything has been ruined by a wild urban sprawl attempting to imitate perhaps the toughness of nature but not modest enough to realize that such solutions without regard for long term impacts shall not work.

Above all such a development sidelines and even silences all the questions citizens have. They see no longer how the quality of life can still be safeguarded. Obviously the choices are limited as to what they can do. This is especially the case if resources are squandered in a fictitious race to make not only money fast but equally without pain. There are clear signs everywhere of many things started but never really completed. Everything lacks the endurance for what it takes to bring about workable solutions in the long run.

Indeed the long term perspective is missing in modern Crete. There is a lack of critical reflection as to how it has become a haphazard life under the influx of so much money. At the end of the day things are reduced simply to what they are: haphazard guesses as to what the future shall contain.

Unfortunately the current solutions are more improvised attempts at modernization than really expressions of thought through solutions. There is a lack of a basic philosophical reflection on how to bring about a development that inspires and gives to the people the freedom and momentum to live in tune with the rich nature Crete can and does offer.

These then are but hints as to some of the deeper ethical questions existing at the location where this philosophical conference is being held. When poets and planners discussed already in 1995 during the conference ‘Myth of the City’ these developments at Forthnet campus located in the midst of agricultural fields but an entirely newly out of the ground stamped building site outside of Heraklion, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly spoke about the ‘rururb’ land – the land which is neither rural nor urban.

It seems that in 2006 these in-between living conditions are really the contradictions leaving life at the mercy of haphazard guesses as to what purpose there is to such a life. If philosophers have any answers to that while discussing the tension span between ethics and politics, they would contribute a lot to making this life on this globe a bit more understandable and not just a nothingness, but possible to alter things both abroad and in Crete.

Theme of the conference

On the official website of the conference is stated that key figures will reflect upon current research dealing with the ‘transformations of ethics and politics’ as they have come under extreme pressure by recent and current world affairs. The conference promises to touch upon

“the most pressing moral and political dilemmas that penetrate contemporary public life, including culture clashes, cross-cultural and intergenerational concerns, complex geopolitical and global issues, such as war and terrorism, world poverty and inequality, disease and environmental risks.”

and declares that the main objectives of the conference are:

In that sense, and given the fact that all abstracts of every speaker’s address were made available prior to the start of the conference on Wednesday, May 24, the paper to be given by Gisela Striker from Harvard University may be taken as representative of not only the overall theme but also how it shall be and is interpreted by current philosophers and academics around the world at this juncture in time (see Part I).


Hatto Fischer

Athens 22.5.2006

For further information about the conference see


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