Virtue

On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

A few weeks ago, Adela Cortina, one of the most important moral philosophers in Spain, was interviewed on the journal El País. “This should be the easiest interview in the world,” said the journalist by way of introduction. Adela Cortina asked why. “Because of your profession. Professors of Ethics never lie, right?” “People assume we are faultless, and when they talk to me they are always justifying themselves. What I work on is something academic, and then, when it comes to life, I try to be consistent with my convictions, but nobody is incorruptible,” she said.

Suppose I tell you that a professor from your local university did something morally reprehensible—cheated on his spouse, failed to pay taxes, or stole money from his department. Suppose that I then tell you this professor is a moral philosopher. Does this further fact make his actions all the more disappointing? I suspect most people think it does. Why is it that ethicists are commonly held to higher moral standards than the rest of the population? Should they be?

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On the nature of defiance

When a thug or a bully or a terrorist is threatening you to stop you doing something they don’t like, not doing it is not defying them, it is submitting to them. Even if you otherwise would not, to defy them you must do the very thing they are forbidding. You must do it just because they threatened you. If you don’t, they will not be fooled by your high falutin’ excuses. They will know that you did not dare. And so will you.

Publishing worthy articles about free speech, tweeting that you are Charlie, drawing cartoons of pens confronting swords, standing around with your fellow world leaders, these are all worthy gestures of revulsion. None of them are acts of defiance. Defiance would be publishing the cartoons, tweeting the cartoons, drawing Mohammed and standing around with your fellow world leaders holding up the very editions of Charlie Hebdo for which their artists were slain.

Milk Round success is tragic, culpable failure

Several times this term I’ve staggered out onto Oxford station, cramped and queasy from Cattle Class, and seen packs of sleek suits ooze out of First Class, briefcases in their hands and predatory gleams in their eyes. ‘Let’s go hunting’, one floppy-haired account manager said to his confederates. They climbed into cabs, which they saw as safari Land Rovers heading to the bush, and went off to a panelled room in some college.

To that room, lured by canapés and Mammon, lots of undergraduates will have come. Fizz (far more expensive than the students would ever buy themselves, but not of a standard that would be tolerated in the hunters’ own Esher homes) will have been waiting on silver trays. Vol au vents will have been smilingly circulated by bought-in labour (or possibly by the  hunters’ own menials, in their best suits, slightly creased from travelling with me in Cattle). Continue reading

C. S. Lewis as a moral philosopher

Tomorrow it is C.S. Lewis’s birthday. He’d have been 116. He died 51 years ago, his death pushed out of the headlines by the deaths of JFK and Aldous Huxley. He’s had far more influence than either.

He’s remembered mainly as a children’s writer (the most dogmatic atheists, terrified or disgusted by the roar of Aslan, nonetheless bring their children to stroke the lion’s mane), and as a Christian apologist. He, irony upon irony, a beer-quaffing, chain-smoking, divorcee-marrying intellectual, living and breathing high pagan culture along with his pipe-smoke, is the darling of American evangelicals. And that’s why he’s neglected by serious philosophers.1 It’s understandable. We tend to judge people by the company they keep. But in the case of Lewis it’s unfair. Evangelicals might queue up at his door, but he’d never let them in.  Apart from their membership of the species, he’d have loathed everything about them; their chauvinism, their ludicrous literalism, their self-righteousness, their belligerence, their metaphor-phobia, their elastic-waisted trousers, their historical blindness, their pant-soiling fear of scholarship, their teetotalism, their humourlessness. He had a fastidious nose for inconsistency: imagine how that nose would have twitched when it sniffed a Louisianan zealot who was keen on topping adults but outraged by abortion. In a different context (he was lambasting liberal intellectuals who say that that they can read nuances between the lines, but fail to see the huge themes rampaging through the  Christian story) he denounced those who ‘claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’)2 He’d have similarly scourged those who have the KJV with their MSG for breakfast, and yet scream for judicial execution in the name of a man who was himself judicially executed, and who, in the name of a man who urged the turning of a cheek and the loving of enemies, say that every (white) citizen should have a gun and that every inconveniently non-compliant nation should have its ass whipped reeeeeeeel good. Continue reading

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

Trust and Institutions

Last week I attended part of a fascinating conference on Trust, organized by the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. In her opening paper, Katherine Hawley raised many interesting questions, including those of whether trustworthiness is a virtue and whether it can be a virtue of institutions. Continue reading

Two Kinds of Compassion

Recent stories of those such as Miguel Pajares, who died from the Ebola virus after catching it from those for whom he was caring, seem to provide paradigmatic examples of compassion. Continue reading

Sex with corpses might be philosophically cool. But it’s still not a good idea.

It is reported that Jimmy Savile crept at night into the mortuary at Leeds General Infirmary and committed sex acts on corpses.1

So what?

Well, for a start, assuming the acts involved penetration, he had committed a serious criminal offence.2

But shouldn’t we grow up? Shouldn’t we let live, and let the live love the dead? Who was hurt? Isn’t this legislation anachronistic? Doesn’t it stem from superannuated and probably, at root, theological ideas about the sanctity of life – irrationally extended to the sanctity of the dead human body?

If the acts gave Savile pleasure, then what’s the problem? Or, if we grant that the outraged relatives might suffer some distress (because they’ve not read enough philosophy), doesn’t the problem lie only in the fact that the relatives heard about what had happened, rather than in the acts themselves? In which case the real villains are the investigators and the media.

We have strong intuitions about many things. So strong, in fact, that they are often immune to the best arguments of the lawyers and philosophers. Continue reading

Moral Luck Revisited

The tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry raises again the problem of moral luck which Bernard Williams did so much to expose in his famous 1976 article on that topic. The South Korean president has now claimed that the captain of the ferry is a murderer, implying that he is subject to the same degree of blame as any other murderer. Continue reading

Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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