Can you be too ethical?

In a recent column in The Guardian, Andrew Brown argues that there are several ways in which one might, in a sense, be ‘too ethical’: Continue reading

A Puzzle about Parenting

Consider the following case. Sikes, walking home late one evening, comes across an envelope containing a thousand pounds outside a neighbour’s house. He’s pretty sure it belongs to the neighbour, as she’d told him she would be withdrawing the money from the bank to buy a new wheelchair for her disabled mother. It is clear to Sikes that no one is looking, so he scoops up the envelope and enters his own house. To most of us, this seems appalling behaviour. Sykes has selfishly put his own interests before those of his neighbour and her mother. Continue reading

There are no significant facts about human beings

By Charles Foster

A few days ago, at dinner, I sat next to a well-known literary biographer. As you’d expect, we fell to talking about the biographer’s obligations, and as you’d also expect, she said that the biographer should be neither advocate nor prosecutor – indeed should strive to keep herself out of the book as much as possible, aiming for objectivity. I heard myself saying that, worthy though this aspiration may be, it was so obviously doomed to failure that it probably wasn’t worth trying. When I reviewed that conversation later, I squirmed. On re-reviewing it I think that the response was right. And here’s why.

There are no significant facts about individual human beings. Or, to wrap it up in philosophese, a human has no qualities which partake of factness sufficiently to make it sensible to treat those qualities in the same way that one would treat, say, the weight of a brick or the length of a stick. Yes, I have physical and chronological dimensions, but in themselves they don’t indicate anything very significant about me. If you told me your date of birth, I could say how long, according to the conventional metrics, you had been alive on the planet: but so what? Your cells age at a different rate from anyone elses, and neither of us knows with which juggernaut the mischievous universe has planned to flatten you, or when. ‘You are as young as you feel’, you will say, and who but you knows how you feel? No one at all thinks that significance lies in the mere accumulation of years, or the mere number of inches from the ground to the top of your head. Where does it lie, then? In the events that fill the years? They, or their corollaries, are the interesting parts of biographies. But what are the events? Yes, a few people have lives marked significantly by their association with undoubted facts: leave the undoubted fact of the double helix out of a biography of Crick or Watson and there would be a serious gap; but even Crick and Watson were infinitely more than their Eureka moment and its prologue and epilogue. Continue reading

Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.

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A Leader Without a Doubt

He never expressed doubt in anything, I think that was his – one of his strengths. He never expressed doubt. Once he’d made his mind up that something was right it was right.

– General Pinochet’s personal driver, commenting on their private conversations about politics and his own admiration for the late dictator.

I was kidding about the source. It was Lady Thatcher’s former driver Denis Oliver, commenting about her when interviewed by the BBC this morning (only gender was changed in the quote). Why do people so often take complete absence of doubt to be a strength in a leader, even when they disagree with that leader’s views? Can they be persuaded otherwise?

Skipping intuitively over the is-ought gap

By Charles Foster

I spent a lot of the weekend at a very good conference entitled Moral Evil in Practical Ethics.
There was, I think, a complete or almost complete consensus about many things. Here are two: (1) Evil exists, and is of a different quality from merely sub-optimal moral behaviour. (2) To recognise evil implied a duty to do something to combat it. Everyone in the room seemed to see (2) as a corollary of (1).
This second proposition is a classic ‘ought’ claim. But how did we get there? The audience included many distinguished philosophers. Were we all plunging naively but disastrously into the is-ought gap? Was the conclusion sloppily reached, and untenable? Continue reading

Why philosophers should celebrate Christmas

By Charles Foster

Christmas comes but once a year. But that is no reason to let down your philosophical guard. Here are four reasons why it might be philosophically justifiable to celebrate Christmas. Continue reading

Philosophy is the transformation of sheep

By Charles Foster

Over the last week English hoodies took to the streets to burn, smash and pillage and, (an almost equally distressing sight), the pop-sociologists of England took to the op-ed columns to tell us why. We’ve had no end of explanations. I’m no more qualified to add to them than most of the original writers were to promulgate them. But whatever the explanation is, it has to account for the fact that this was by no means a primal scream from the nation’s disenfranchised: alongside the youths who may have been expressing their turbulent  pasts and hopeless presents, were estate agents, Olympic ambassadors and law students who were ruining their promising futures. The deep causes are beyond me, but the most proximate, obvious (and possibly the only) cause for the vast majority was simply that they were following others. Why did A get involved? Because B did. And why did B get involved? Because C did. At one (and perhaps all levels), this was no more a revolution than sheep baa-ing after each other through a gate.

If alienation was the cause, as many said, from what were the participants alienated? From their ability to make up their own minds, and hence from themselves. If disenfranchisement, from what decision-making process? Their own. Continue reading

The Ethics of Etiquette

It is of course nearly the ‘silly season’, but the amount of attention paid in recent days to Carolyn Bourne’s critical email to her future daughter-in-law Heidi Withers about her manners is remarkable.

Most of the rules Bourne mentions concern the table manners of guests:

1) Don’t declare what you will and will not eat.

2) Don’t say you haven’t enough to eat.

3) Don’t start before everyone else.

4) Don’t take extra helpings without being invited to do so.

(In case you’re interested, the others require one to send handwritten cards of thanks, not to lie in bed in the morning, not to insult one’s future family in public, not to attract attention to oneself by telling others of one’s medical condition, and not to behave brashly (e.g. by getting married in a castle).)

In reading the email, I was reminded of a passage in R.M. Hare’s fascinating ‘Philosophical Autobiography’ (Utilitas 2002), about his time as a prisoner of the Japanese:

‘When we were on our way north to work as coolies in Thailand, crammed into box cars and receiving almost nothing to eat, there drew beside us a very smart new air-conditioned Thai train. Behind one of its plate glass windows, framed as if in an aquarium, was a young Japanese officer, eating an excellent meal with an air of exquisite refinement. When I had travelled in India, the poor must sometimes, from their vantage point, have seen me myself doing the same. I have never since then been able to behave nicely at table’.

One of the several things Bourne has failed to recognize is that, even though politeness is a virtue, it is not fundamental. It is part of benevolence, involving, as Henry Sidgwick put it, ‘the expression of general goodwill and abstinence from anything that may cause pain to others in conversation and social demeanour’ (The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., 253).

If Withers’ behaviour was really as Bourne suggests, one can imagine it must indeed have been mildly annoying (though I don’t really get the rules about hand-written cards and the castle – those, I suspect, are peculiar to the Devonian upper-middle-class Bourne is – somewhat vainly — hoping Withers might wish to join). Her reaction, however, is what one might expect from someone who has been violently assaulted. Moral indignation and blame are scarce commodities, worth preserving for the things that really matter.

Above and Beyond …?

After the tsunami of 11 March, many thousands of people in northern Japan have lost their homes or are in dire need of medical and other supplies. The Oxfam website has a special page on the disaster through which you can donate using a debit or credit card. Other pages enable you to help Ivory Coast refugees or the poor in Zimbabwe, or to join Oxfam and contribute to its general funds.

Once you’ve decided you have the resources to make a donation to Oxfam, then, difficult questions arise about which cause to support. But a more fundamental issue concerns the nature of the reason you have to donate in the first place. If you make a donation — unless your money is, say, stolen or committed elsewhere — I shall think your action highly admirable. But if you decide to keep your money, even if you spend it on some luxury for yourself, I shall not blame you. In other words, you appear to have no duty to donate; but going beyond your duty is morally praiseworthy. It is this phenomenon to which theologians and philosophers have given the name supererogation (literally, ‘what is above what is demanded from one’).

Supererogation is a fascinating concept. Its origins are Christian, one of the most famous expressions of the idea being in Matthew xix.16-22. Jesus is asked by a rich young man how he might gain eternal life, and he says: ‘keep the commandments – in particular, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, but do honour your father and mother and do love your neighbour as yourself’. He then says that if you want to be perfect and thus have treasure in heaven, you have to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. Understandably, the rich man is disappointed to hear the point about perfection (he clearly didn’t interpret Jesus as requiring him to love his neighbour as much as he loves himself, as he says he’s already kept all those commandments).

The fact that supererogation remains central to the common morality we live by, whether Christian or not, is one of the clearest pieces of evidence of the continuing influence of Christianity on the way we think. Aristotle, for example, had no room for the concept. According to him, the virtuous person would do what was appropriate to the circumstances. This is his so-called ‘doctrine of the mean’, and in that doctrine virtue itself is an extreme. There is no ‘going beyond’ virtue. Yes, you can give too much or to the wrong people. But that is not praiseworthy. It is the vice of wastefulness. Likewise, in more recent centuries, the idea plays no significant role in the consequentialist or utilitarian tradition. You are morally required to make the world as good as possible, and to the extent that you fail to meet that goal then you are to be blamed.

It seems to me a great advantage of these positions that they do not incorporate supererogation, since the very idea seems paradoxical. If you know you have a moral reason to donate to Oxfam, and you knowingly fail to act on that reason, how can that not be morally blameworthy? At the very least, we might want to reflect upon the origins of the idea in a pretty undemanding conception of morality and ask ourselves whether we want to retain it. And if we don’t, but continue to believe there is a moral reason to donate to Oxfam, then we might conclude that we have a duty to do so.