Well, they say of Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time.
Actually, that’s disputed, but that’s by-the-by. While watching the telly, I was struck by a remark of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, on the resignation of the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholic community, Cardinal Keith O’Brien following allegation of sexual misconduct. “It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation”, said Salmond. Continue reading
I have a relative who faces the following dilemma, though he doesn’t see it as a dilemma. But I do.
My relative is involved in the charitable sector. He has been approached by some representatives of a foreign foundation. He doesn’t know anything about the foundation – those who run the foundation want to keep all substantial details about it secret, for reasons unknown (they may have honourable motives). The foundation has a bank account in the UK, with money transferred into it from abroad: my relative assumes that the money is legally kosher (since the British bank would have had to check for money laundering and so on). Continue reading
The Greek statesman and poet Solon, who lived in the sixth century BC, said “count no man happy until he be dead”. His thought seems to have been that a person’s luck can change at any time. Aristotle went further. He believed that things can happen after one’s death to affect whether one is happy.
Initially, that seems an odd idea. Because the modern conception of happiness is that it is purely a subjective state.
But compare two lives, recently in the news. They concern two men – a few years ago both would have been regarded by most people as having lived highly successful, even exemplary lives. Continue reading
It has always been a puzzle to me that there is no league in basketball for small people. Height is a vague concept, like baldness, but just as some people are unquestionably bald, others are unquestionably short. Shortness is a category to which I, unfortunately and indisputably belong. Continue reading
I have been thinking about babies recently, for various reasons (let’s call them Saul). It had always struck me that procreation was a classic example of a prisoner’s dilemma. It was good for each couple to have children, but if everyone churned out these resource-chomping monsters it was disastrous for us all.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine three cities.
- A medieval city (something like Oxford).
- A city heavily bombed in World War II and completely rebuilt, with original materials etc. (e.g. the centre of Warsaw).
- A city constructed in 2012 to look just like the medieval city (e.g. .Poundbury the ‘traditional’ village Prince Charles has created in Dorset).
Now imagine that these three cities look identical. And let’s stipulate that the experience of living in them is pretty much the same (the houses are no more likely to suffer from dry rot in the first than the third). Here’s the question: where would you rather live?
My guess is that most people would prefer 1 over 2 and, 2 (strongly) over 3. This is the intuition of most of the people that I’ve tried it out on.
But why? The thought experiment might partially be corrupted by the suspicion that they would not seem alike in practice. In practice, we would surely be able to spot the difference, different smells, and sounds and colours. But I don’t believe that accounts for the intuition in its entirety.
When people try to explain their intuition they use words like ‘real, ‘genuine’ ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ to describe 1. And ‘fake’, ‘phony’ and ‘fraudulent’ to describe 3. Although the lived experience in the cities is the same, and they are aesthetically the same, people care about origins – they want the back-story.
To what extent people should care about origins is an interesting question. We do seem to care a heck of a lot. We care a lot about whether something is a real Van Gogh or a fake one, even if we can’t tell the difference (and this is not merely because the real is worth more in money terms than the fake).
We care a lot about our biological origins. There’s a perfectly rational reason why we should care: knowing the genetic make-up and medical history of our parents and grandparents is obviously helpful in assessing our own health risks and shaping our choices. But again, that seems like only a partial explanation of our curiosity. It doesn’t seem to be enough to explain why, say, people tracing their roots on TV programmes, break down and weep upon discovering that their great-great-great grandfather starved to death in the potato famine. The fact that millions of people died in the potato famine had, to that point, failed to move them.
There has long been a debate about whether adopted children should have the right to know about their biological parents. And in recent years a similar debate has been stimulated by the revolution in fertility treatment. A law now gives children born from sperm donors the right to discover the identities of their father when they reach eighteen: many people objected to this piece of legislation, predicting (I think correctly?) that it would lead to a drop in sperm donation. But given the yearning people have for knowledge of their origins, one can at least understand why the law-makers did it.