David Edmonds’ Posts

Dirty Money

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

In Praise of Tribalism

Murray v. Federer.  Why would anyone support the grumpy Murray against the gentleman Federer?  Why would one back ordinariness against genius?  Why would one root for efficiency over grace? Continue reading

A Girls’ Night Out

A couple of weeks ago my wife went out on what she described as ‘a girls’ night out’.  Naturally, I was excluded (though I have a male friend who claims – bafflingly – that he’s been invited to several such gatherings). Continue reading

A Teeny-Weeny Baby Puzzle

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.

That was until friends (philosophers) kindly pointed out that study after study shows that having children actually makes people unhappy. Continue reading

Would you swim in Hitler’s pool?

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

Female Philosophers and Sexual Harassment

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. 


From Ivory Coast to Ivory Tower

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.

Murder in an English Village

Midsomer Murders is an ITV drama based around English village life: it pulls in millions of viewers and has been running for over a decade.   The co-creator of the series has just been suspended for saying he deliberately kept ethnic minorities out of the series.  “It wouldn’t be an English village with them”.   Cue outrage from all sides.  The executive is either an out –of-touch-bigot, or his suspension is ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Curiously, much of the furor has focused on the empirical claim that English villages are not generally very multicultural.   But if that’s what’s at stake, then the dispute can be quickly resolved by checking the demographic facts.   English villages are far less racially mixed than urban areas, and no doubt there are many English villages that are entirely, or almost entirely, white.   (On the other hand, if the executive’s aim was to reflect typical English village, then Midsomer Murders should be rewritten without the homicide).

It seems to me there are several considerations that should come into play in these sorts of disputes.

  1. Is there a range of programming across the spectrum that reflects a variety of lives and lifestyles?
  2. Is there a reasonable range of opportunities for actors from all backgrounds?
  3. Might the incongruity of the presence of an actor with a certain ethnicity hinder the drama?  Thus, unless it was making a deliberate dramatic statement to have a white actor playing a typical inhabitant of an Indian village would be silly.

If the answers to 1. and 2. are ‘yes’, we should be relaxed about a show containing only one racial group.   How much an audience is conscious of an actor’s ethnicity will depend on many factors, including conditioning.  Thus, the Royal Shakespeare Company now routinely has black actors, playing roles like Henry VI, and, thankfully, nobody seems to find this at all strange.


A group of us often meet at our friend Mohammed’s place – and we normally order in a takeaway. Mohammed’s a devout Muslim, but I always get a pepperoni pizza. I did this again last night. We use Mohammed’s plates and cutlery, and he looks a little pained at having pork in his house, but I figure as I’m not forcing Mohammed to eat it himself, he’s just being silly and over-sensitive and there’s no reason for him to be offended.

Continue reading

Sex and Chess

For chess geeks (like me), it’s an exciting week.   Tomorrow will see the start of the London Chess Classic.   It will feature the first, second and forth ranked players in the world.   Apart from their prowess over the 64 squares, all the competitors share another characteristic: they’re all male.

Continue reading