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Being Angry at Zoella – What Moral Outrage Tells About Us

If you are like me you did not know who Zoe Sugg – known as Zoella – was before she published the fastest selling debut novel ever, “Girl Online”. Since then, I learned that Sugg is a video blogger on YouTube, publishing tips about beauty and life. More than 9 million people have subscribed to her channels (Ref). My immediate suspicion was that pretty soon snobbish intellectuals would start writing articles about how the success of a book written by a vlogger would indicate the end of the world. Yet, the backlash came in a different form. Shortly after the book was published, people started to question how much writing Sugg did and how much help she got: Did she write the novel herself? The publisher subsequently admitted that she had help (“To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own,” Ref) and a lot of people on the internet got morally outraged.

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The Ethics of Humor

Clinton Cards recently apologized for a Christmas card listing “10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council Estate” (sample reasons: “He only works once a year”; “He drinks alcohol during working hours”). Predictably, some people professed outrage over the card (which seems to me mildly offensive, but not enough to get worked up over) and equally predictably some people slammed the reaction as an excess of political correctness (whatever that means). Humor is very often at someone’s expense. In fact, some people have suggested that making the person who laughs feel superior to the butt of the joke is the essence of humor. That theory is rather implausible, but we certainly don’t want a blanket ban on jokes that target other people. When is it okay to tell jokes at the expense of others and when isn’t it? Continue reading

Christine Korsgaard: Fellow Creatures (Lecture 1)

We are delighted that Christine Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, has accepted our invitation to deliver the Uehiro Lectures in Oxford. The title of the series is Fellow Creatures, and this first fascinating and suggestive lecture – delivered on 1 December 2014 — is called ‘Animals, Human Beings, and Persons’. One primary purpose of this lecture is to clarify the similarities and differences between those three kinds of creature, and to clear the ground of some misunderstandings. Continue reading

7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally

Feeling bad about oneself is a common response to realising that one has acted wrongly, or that one could have done something morally better. It is a reaction that is at least partly inspired by a cultural background that Western civilisation has been carrying on its back for centuries. But contrary to appearances and folk beliefs, not only does our tendency to feel guilty fail to promote morality, it can also be an obstacle to moral behaviour.

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Pedophiles and homosexuals – apples and oranges?

Australian columnist and TV personality Mia Freedman has been caught in a social media storm after comparing pedophiles to gay people. Freedman’s gaffe didn’t warrant the furious response it got; the response seems mainly the product of people’s inability to understand how analogies and similes work. Freedman, arguing in favor of a public sex offender’s register, claimed that we ought to expect pedophiles to continue to be a danger to children, because they can’t change who they’re attracted to, just like gay people can’t change who they’re attracted to. Freedman’s point was that we used to think that gay people could be ‘cured’; we now accept that that’s a fantasy. So we should say the same thing about pedophiles.

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Is there Value in Teaching Moral Values?

In Japan, being good will soon be a formal subject in school education. The Japanese education ministry must develop textbooks and curricula to teach morality, and tests to grade it, which occasions a host of interesting practical questions (for a thoughtful list). In addition to practical questions about how to implement such a program, there are theoretical questions about whether trying to do so is wise. Moral education has a troubled past in Japan; it was scratched in the 1960s by the Americans because they suspected it taught racism and blind obedience to the emperor. Nevertheless, the idea of teaching moral values seems to be gaining steam internationally. In Britain, for instance, the Jubilee Centre for Characters and Values at the University of Birmingham hopes to form the moral character of British pupils (another attempt). And it just announced the launch of a free online course designed to teach people how to build a morally good character.

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The devil is real, and we all know him

It is Halloween, the day when the dead walk and the devil rides.

We’re plagued by children who are risking diabetes, if not their immortal souls, by demanding the sort of sweets you only give to kids you hate. The Christians down the road, not realizing, as Luther did, that the devil can’t bear to be mocked, are holding a ‘light party’ in protest against the trick-and- treaters.

And, between door-bell rings and dispensings of deadly substances to skeletons, I’m reflecting on a talk I recently heard by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It was on her wonderful book, Plato in the Googleplex. In the book, Plato wanders through modern America, watching, talking, bemused, amused, dismayed, misunderstood. It’s an audit of Platonism. How has it weathered? Continue reading

Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world – problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on – almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

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Assisted Suicide: A Better Alternative

The new DPP Alison Saunders has clarified the Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide issued by the previous DPP, Keir Starmer, in 2010. This has led to claims by right to life groups that assisted suicide will be available in the UK. This is, I argue, false. Assisted suicide remains a crime. I argue a better alternative under current law is Voluntary Palliated Starvation. This could render unconscious patients who embark on suicide by starvation and dehydration, such as the recent tragic case of Mrs Jean Davies. This could be lawful under current law and acceptable to doctors who do not wish to kill, but wish to relieve suffering.

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She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.

We’re not good at large numbers. Our brains are adapted to living in groups of perhaps 150 individuals. City living is a very recent innovation, and our psychological mechanisms struggle to cope with it. One way in which we may go astray is through the misapplication of heuristics that worked well for our ancestors, but which misfire in very large groups. Suppose you learn that there is a person in your group prone to violence without provocation. If you live in a group of 150 individuals, you need to be on high alert: your paths will cross. But if you live in a city of 5 million people, you really shouldn’t worry (unless you have some reason to think the violent individual lives in your street). In fact, on learning that there is such an individual you will probably feel more anxiety than you should – not as much as you would if you knew your paths would cross, but more than you rationally ought to. Continue reading

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