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
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.
A friend of mine recently returned from a visit to a beautiful and imposing villa, now the British ambassador’s residence in Rome. During World War II it housed the German embassy, and prisoners were tortured in the cellars.
The swimming pool was built for Adolf Hitler, and this information, said my friend, would put her off from using it. Continue reading
I’ve been reading, for a research project, about a group of remarkable philosophers who were educated in Oxford during and after World War II: some went on to teach at Oxford. They include Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock.
Several of them, it transpires, were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment.
What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behaviour seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never ‘after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behaviour seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us’. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, ‘Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…’..
Miranda Fricker argues that where an invidious attitude or practice is widespread, those guilty of having such an attitude or engaging in such a practice should not be held as blameworthy as they ought to be if the attitude or practice were (correctly and widely) seen as morally unacceptable. Thus we are not to hold the chauvinist pig or sexual harasser or casual racist of 1951 to the same standards as the chauvinist pig or sexual harasser or casual racist of 2011.
Perhaps, in their reaction to Fraenkel, the philosophers I’ve been reading about are not representative of his other victims: Warnock mentions one student for whom the effect was deep and long-lasting. But there’s another interpretation….
The evolution of a moral norm will, hopefully, have the huge beneficial impact of reducing the number of violations of that norm. When it’s generally regarded as inappropriate for a professor to make sexual advances to a student, there will be fewer professors who do it. But, perversely, it’s possible that, at a time when such behaviour was so much more commonplace, students felt less violated by it than they would today. Altering the norm means that when a violation of the norm occurs, the harm might be all the greater.
The former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbabgo, did little to enhance his democratic credentials by refusing to step down from power after defeat at the polls.
President Barack Obama, it has recently transpired, tried to encourage him to depart by offering him an ivory tower carrot – an academic post at a prestigious East Coast university. That university was almost certainly Boston.
Now, President Gbagbo is not the most evil man in the history of humanity – but he’s also far from being the most virtuous. And you wouldn’t have thought he was a chap that a university faculty would rush to embrace. On the other hand, had the White House persuaded him to leave office gracefully, Ivory Coast would not have descended into near civil war, and hundreds of lives would not have been lost.
In the event, President Gbagbo refused to accept President Obama’s calls. He may have been wary of a deal, following the experience of another West African leader, Charles Taylor. Taylor had left Liberia believing that his security was guaranteed in Nigeria. He’s now facing trial at the International Criminal Court.
It’s an interesting example of what might be called the Problem of Dirty Hands, a problem that goes back at least to Machiavelli. To what extent should our democratically-elected politicians, because of their enormous responsibility, be permitted to act differently to the rest of us? Usually, proponents of the claim that politicians operate in a distinct moral sphere, are those who reach utilitarian judgments in certain relevant moral thought experiments – whether the politician should order torture in the ticking bomb scenario, etc. The former US Secretary of State for Defence Robert McNamara, an instrumental figure in the Vietnam war, offered a list of principles for the conduct of foreign policy. Number 9 was this: “In order to do good you must engage in evil”.
The dilemma of whether or not to offer a dictator an amnesty – perhaps with a home and an income thrown in – to ward off potential chaos and conflict, is a very real one in politics. My own view, not unlike Tony Coady’s and Rai Gaita’s is that we’d do well to elect politicians who are reluctant to resort to the ‘dirty hands’ defense of political deals. And we should be aware that over time the messy, grubby, necessary process that politicians have to engage in, of weighing up unpalatable options, is almost bound to have a corrupting effect.