On rebuilding Noah’s Ark and drinking old Burgundy

By Charles Foster

In North Kentucky, forty miles from its Creation Museum (where you can see Eve riding on a triceratops and videos in which weeping girls blame their moral degeneracy on their failure to believe in the verbal inerrancy of Scripture), ‘Answers in Genesis’ is building a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark. It’s an expensive business. The total bill will be $24.5 million, of which $845,910 has been raised to date. ‘Partner with us in this amazing outreach by sponsoring a peg, plank or beam…’, pleads the website. A peg will cost you $100, a plank $1000, and a beam $5000. But if you buy a beam, you’ll also get a model of the Ark personally signed by Ken Ham, the President of ‘Answers in Genesis’. Continue reading

Is it the thought that counts?

There was a jolly fire in the fireplace. The snow was falling outside the windows, to the delight of children and despair of transport planners. Aristotle sipped on the mulled wine, watching while Kant meticulously wrapped another jar of homemade mustard.

“Dear Immanuel, are you going to give all your friends mustard?”

“Everybody except Georg. He likes to mix it with ketchup; he says it makes a great synthesis. I don’t care much for that idea and I would hate to see it spread. He will get a writing style guide instead.”

“I guess for you it is the thought that counts, when it comes to Christmas presents.”

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People will behave badly if it’s not too much work…and if no one is watching

by Alexandre Erler

An interesting article recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concludes that people are more likely to transgress moral norms if doing so does not require an explicit action on their part. The researchers, from the University of Toronto, conducted two studies: in one of these, they asked participants whether they would volunteer to help a student with a learning disability complete a problem-solving task. One group of participants had only the option of checking a 'yes' or 'no' box that popped up on the computer. The second group of people could follow a link at the bottom of the page to volunteer their help or simply press 'continue' to move on to the next page of their questionnaire. Participants were five times more likely to volunteer when they had to expressly pick either 'yes' or 'no.'


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Are some temperaments “better” than others?

by Alexandre Erler

Jerome Kagan’s latest book, The Temperamental Thread, is – as usual with Kagan – a fascinating read. It draws on the three decades of research done by Kagan on the topic of human temperament. In a famous series of studies, Kagan examined the way infants reacted to unfamiliar or unexpected events. He found that about 20 per cent of these infants were unusually responsive to such events, exhibiting vigorous motor activity and frequent crying. He calls these infants “high reactives”, and found after following their evolution during their subsequent years that they were biased to become timid, subdued toddlers and shy adolescents who become uneasy when they cannot predict or control the future. About 20 per cent of these high reactives proved unable to cope with their temperament and were subsequently diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, depression, or both. By contrast, another other group of infants showed a high threshold of excitability to the same events. Kagan calls them “low reactives”. They tended to become outgoing, relatively fearless children and relaxed adolescents who like risk and challenge [3]. In the wake of Kagan’s earlier work The Long Shadow of Temperament, The Temperamental Thread paints a rich and detailed picture of the differences between these two psychological types.


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Sam Harris, the Naturalistic Fallacy, and the Slipperiness of “Well-Being”

This post is about the main argument of Sam Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape. Harris argues that there are objective truths about what’s morally right and wrong, and that science can in principle determine what they are, all by itself. As I’ll try to demonstrate here, Harris’s argument cannot succeed. I call the argument “scientistic” because those who take (a variation of) its first two premises to be obvious are led to exaggerate the importance of scientific measurement for determining what’s morally right, and correspondingly to underestimate the importance of moral reasoning and moral philosophy.

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Virtue is back, and I’m worried about my mortgage

Professional ethicists have traditionally sniffed at virtue ethics, regarding them as folk philosophy; intrinsically subjective and therefore worthless. They are what you fall back on when you haven’t got a proper argument. You don’t need a PhD to hold a position justified by virtue ethics, and accordingly that position is suspect.

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Religion and Virtue: The Pope’s Truncated Vision

The Pope arrived in Britain today, held out his “hand of friendship” and called on all the British people to remember:

Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

So far, so respectable. Many (though by no means all) historical British leaders were of course Christians, and Christianity does teach respect for truth and justice, mercy and charity, in broad terms at least. (Some will disagree that the Pope’s faith teaches justice or respect for truth when it comes to contraception, HIV, gay rights, and women’s rights, and some may point out that historically this faith was neither particularly merciful nor just – but let us put these quibbles aside.) It is not unreasonable to think that historical Britons drew their morals from their faith, and that this benefitted us in the present day, even if it is debatable whether faith was or remains a “mighty force for good”.

My problem is with what the Pope then went on to say:

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Morality: what’s disgust got to do with it?

Taylor has got an interesting recent piece in the Guardian
about the importance
of the emotion of disgust for our moral lives. “If you had a dog”, she asks,
“and it died a natural death, how would you feel about roasting and eating it?”
Most of us would be revulsed by such an idea. And yet by hypothesis we
would not be causing the dog any harm whatsoever; suppose also we made sure
that the meat was adequately prepared so that it did not pose a health risk to
us and our children. Why should eating the dog raise any moral issue at all?


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How many friends do you need?

The title of Robin Dunbar’s recently published book asks a good question: How many friends does one person need? (

Dunbar suggests that a human being can’t have more than about 150 friends (or ‘acquaintances’, as the book itself somewhat revealingly puts it). But of course it all depends on who we count as a ‘friend’. If we are talking about people with whom one spends a good deal of one’s time, then the number would usually be significantly lower; whereas if we allow friends to include what Aristotle called philoi, it could be much larger. People are philoi when they have some kind of goodwill to one another, and are mutually aware of that goodwill (Nicomachean Ethics VIII.2). On this generous view, even Facebook ‘friends’ one has never met might be genuine, if those extending and accepting the invitation do have some real concern for one another.

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Should we be afraid of virtual reality?

authors like
Susan Greenfield and Roger Scruton have raised worries about the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which
they fear might have a negative impact on human relationships, as people
increasingly spend their lives hidden behind an “avatar”. The movie Surrogates
, recently released, precisely pictures a future humanity that lives
as it were by proxy: the story takes place in a world where people stay at home
and send remote-controlled “surrogates” – androids that are typically younger
and better-looking versions of themselves – out in the world to do things for
them. In the same vein, American futurologist Ray Kurzweil
predicts that within a quarter of a century, virtual reality (VR) will rival the real
world: “If we want to go into virtual-reality mode”, he says, “nanobots will
shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will
become commonplace”. However, far from sharing the worries of people like
Greenfield and Scruton, Kurzweil believes this is a prospect we should look
forward to.*


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