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The good example

Last time I wrote about our potential to model ourselves on others, to be inspired by the good example they might be setting.  In this blog I shift the focus to the role model and the idea of leading by example. How might we recognise the appropriate role model – and perhaps more pressingly – what might the qualification criteria be? There has been a lot of debate on the importance of a strong leadership recently and it seems that expressions like ‘leading by example’, ‘walk the talk’ and ‘leading from the front’ are all the rage. (For some examples ranging from politicians to celebrities see here, here, here and here). At first on-look the idea of setting a good example might indeed sound both attractive and intuitive. Of course one can be inspired by role models; surely observing the deeds and practices of others can trigger a genuine desire to reform one’s behaviour! But do we have good reasons to be so optimistic?

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On a happier note

Starting with the financial crisis back in autumn it seems that greed and poor judgement are two persistent themes this year. While mankind was not entirely unfamiliar with the plague of greed prior to October 2008, recent events have meant that hardly a day goes by when such vicious matters do not make the headlines in one form or another. Attending an Oxford college ceremony the other day gave a bit of a historical perspective on how to deal with greed. The ‘pennies from the tower’ ceremony involved (or used to involve in times prior to current health and safety regulations) inviting a group of impoverished children onto the college lawn and then letting the pennies rain down from the tower above. But as they started to scurry around, fighting each other for the coins, they noticed that the pennies were hot. Piping hot. This was considered an excellent way to teach the children that greed is a vice and that there is no such thing as a free lunch. No doubt the blisters on their little hands would have served as an efficient reminder of this harsh lesson. One of the problems with this practice is it is far from clear that brute force the best way to introduce more positive values and behavioural patterns in people. Indeed, it is not even clear that the threat of punishment and public humiliation works as a deterrent.

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Self-control matters – but to what extent can it be taught?

Recently in
the news, a report published by the independent think-tank Demos reminds us of
the importance of the capacity for self-control (it also mentions empathy, to
which most of the following remarks apply) in determining life outcomes. It
argues that self-control lessons should be taught at school if children,
particularly from deprived backgrounds, are to be given the tools they need to
succeed in life – low-self-control has for instance been shown to positively
correlate with length of unemployment or criminal behaviour, and negatively
with academic achievement. The report echoes renewed interest in the United
States in a now famous experiment by Walter Mischel on deferred gratification,
dating back to the late 1960s. Mischel tested the capacity of a group of
four-year olds to resist the temptation to eat straightaway a marshmallow he
had given them. The children who were able to refrain turned out to be better
adjusted, more dependable and to do better academically on the whole later in


The report
by Demos makes important points and its proposals deserve to be supported.
Nevertheless, even if they are put into practice, we might still feel concerned
about how effective we can expect them to be. There is indeed a body of
evidence suggesting that the capacity for self-control is to a large extent
genetically determined (Wright & Beaver, 2005; Beaver & al., 2009).


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What kind of happiness?

At a conference for headteachers child psychologist Dr Carol Craig (chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Glasgow) warned that “young people were being encouraged to believe that the most important thing in life is whether they feel happy”. She argued that the exaggerated focus on building pupils self-esteem left adults overly afraid of… Read More »What kind of happiness?

Just lose it?

A recent
study by researchers from the Harvard Medical School concludes that getting
angry at work, contrary to common opinion, may not be a bad thing, but may
actually be beneficial to your career and your overall happiness (as reported by 
BBC News and the Guardian among others). The researchers nevertheless issue a few caveats: in order for anger to be
beneficial, one ought to remain in control when expressing it and be able to
“positively channel” it. On the other hand, they advise against outright fury,
which they describe as “destructive”. There is indeed an important lesson contained in these statements; one might have wished, however, that the researchers had been a little more specific in the provisos they add to their main idea.

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A kidney for a heart – some thoughts on ownership of biological material

Back in 2001 Richard Batista, a vascular surgeon at Nassau University Medical Center, donated a kidney to his wife Dawnell Batista in an attempt to save both her life and their failing marriage (here and here). Although the transplantation (Ms Batista’s third) was a success nothing could salvage the marriage and in 2005 Ms Battista filed for divorce. The infuriated Mr Battista responded by demanding his kidney back. Mr Battista said that while he had done everything to save her – as his lawyer put it “acted ‘godlike’” – she had exploited his kindness and betrayed him in the worst of ways. He accused her of having an affair with her physical therapist, said that she refused marriage counselling (implying it could have saved the marriage) and that she would not let him see their 3 children. Ms Battista, on the other hand, denied the affair and said that her soon to be ex-husband was “insanely jealous and hyper-suspicious”. Faced with the impossibility of actually getting the organ back Mr Battista has announced that he wants to be compensated monetarily. More precisely he holds that $1.5 million would be the appropriate market value of the kidney. The hearing started last month and it seems fair to assume that the claim for monetary compensation will be rejected. The selling of organs is illegal in the USA and as pointed out by one of the lawyers involved; a kidney is not a marital asset to be divided. The sensationalist overtones of the Batista case aside, it is clear that ownership of biological material is one of the most challenging issues in bioethics today. Arguably, a strongly contributing factor is that it is not particularly clear what it means to own biological material. Which are the rights and obligations that we have with regards to our own, and other people’s, biological material?

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Reliably sinful – how to maximise profit

Even in these changing times it would appear some things stay the same. One example would be our insatiable appetite for vice. Indeed, given the bleak financial situation the demand for a bit of instant gratification might well be on the increase. This is the business idea behind the Vice Fund and other similar enterprises. The perpetual flux aside, alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and arms never seem to go out of fashion. Some financial analysts say that as the demand for this type of products is comparatively stable and less sensitive to recession an investment portfolio consisting of ‘unethical stocks’ will fare better than its ethical counterpart. This idea is neatly illustrated in the catchphrase of the US based Vice Fund “When it’s good, it’s very, very good …and when it’s bad it’s better”.

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From doomed lamb to potential phoenix – the story of a modern sacrifice

‘Is there a place for sacrifice in the modern world?’ a colleague asked during a conference in Oxford this weekend. To an extent the answer appears to depend on what we mean by sacrifice. The traditional religious version is arguably in demise in a secular and increasingly individualistic society, but could it be that another version is on the rise? It has become almost standard procedure that when a politician, business leader or other public person is caught doing something they really shouldn’t do, they go for the public apology. In this grovelling mea culpa parade they offer themselves up in tasty little morsels intended to satisfy the public appetite. Sometimes the outrage is such that, for all their efforts, they are still sent packing. Yet all is not lost, after a while out in the cold a surprising number resurface to take on new posts involving big responsibilities presumably requiring both a strong character and sound judgement. But do we really have good reason to think that time out of the lime light equals time spent on moral contemplation?

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The Morality of Suicide Bombing

Since the 1980s, the popularity of suicide attacks – primarily bombing – has grown rapidly. There are now hundreds every year. As I write, the BBC is reporting a suicide bombing which appears to have killed eight people in Pakistan: The motivation of suicide bombers has been widely discussed by sociologists, historians, psychologists, and others. My topic, however, is not their motivation, but their moral status.

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Drop the cane and listen!

In my last blog I commented on the call for virtuous behaviour and reliable role models in troubled times. My example then was the financial crisis but I would like to continue this theme as I believe I have spotted a similar move in another area; namely the upbringing of children. Anti-social behaviour among the young is a big problem in society today and the standard response has been more control and stricter rules. In his new book psychologist Stephen Briers begs to differ.

Read More »Drop the cane and listen!