All entries for November 2009

November 27, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 1

Firstly, there is certainly no tension between ethics and money, if ethics is interpreted as involving questions about how to live and what sort of person to be.  In a money-based economy, we all need enough money to satisfy basic needs if we are to survive; we probably also need enough money to satisfy some non-basic desires as well, if we are not simply to survive but to lead a good life.  Working out what these basic needs are may well be an area of dispute; deciding which non-basic desires merit satisfying assuredly will (we'll be coming back to this).  So we all need either to make money, or to obtain it by some other means.  And the ways in which we make or obtain money themselves are part of how we live and who we are, and may be done in ways which increase or decrease our own overall well-being and/or which increase or decrease the well-being of others.

But we do not just have to make or otherwise obtain money in order to satisfy at least some of our needs and desires.  We also have to spend it (or use the products which others have bought for us), and the way we spend money is also an ethical issue.  How was the product produced or made?  What are the working conditions of those involved in its production?  What is the environmental impact of its production, transport, marketing, use and disposal?  Should we buy from local sources?  What is going to be the overall impact of the product on our happiness or the happiness of others?  How are we going to find the time to work these things out when we are rushing round the supermarket before picking up our children from school?!

For almost all of us, the making and spending of money will also involve a current bank account, and most of us will also need to borrow from and save in banks and building societies at various stages of our life.  Some of us will also choose to invest e.g. in shares or gilts or property.  So there will also be ethical considerations connected with the terms on which we save, borrow or invest, and the nature of the bank or company with which we are dealing.

So, on the one hand, money undoubtedly plays a key role in our ethical life, and given this, it is strange how little time most of us spend thinking about how best to earn, spend, save, borrow and invest it, in ways that will increase our well-being and perhaps the well-being of others too.  It is also strange how comparatively little attention is given to such matters in most schools (though there are some commendable exceptions, and the situation is slowly changing for the better).  Given this lack of attention to the bigger picture of how money fits in to the good life, it is perhaps not surprising how many unintentional anomalies there are in our thinking and practice e.g someone may say that they think money does not buy happiness and that being wealthy can be dangerous, yet exhaust themselves trying to make money to leave to their children, or they may say that they think investing in shares is wrong without bearing in mind that the banks they use or companies they buy from are doing exactly that.  Nor is it surprising how many rows couples have about money (some of which, of course, are caused by events which are out of their control, but some could be avoided with more discussion and planning).

On the other hand, most of us (as I suggested last week) only want money because we think it can further other ends, yet spend a huge proportion of our waking lives trying to make the stuff that we (mostly) only want because of something else ... And we may further feel trapped in jobs that we hate, and end up feeling intense resentment and frustration.

So our current relation with money in the west is confused and conflicted.  Next week we'll look at whether we can start to clarify the situation (using Plato for some help), and whether we can take any steps to make money work for us, rather than the other way round.


November 20, 2009

Question: Ethics and Money

Here are a couple of questions for our new topic, on ethics and money.  As with all my Friday Questions (and Friday Responses in subsequent weeks), they are primarily aimed at those who have no or very little experience of philosophy, though of course I welcome comments from all, including those with some philosophical training.  But their chief role is to form part of the work I am doing as Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy, and I want absolutely everyone to feel that they can take part in the debate. 

Questions: Is there a necessary tension between ethical and economic considerations?  And what is the role of money (whether making it, investing it or spending it) in the good life?

Here is (part of) the problem.  Most of us are not primarily motivated by money, but only want money for other ends e.g the well-being of our children.  Usually we are aware of this (though sometimes we may be so busy or stressed that we lose sight of the bigger picture).  And yet most of us spend an enormous amount of our lives trying to make the money that we only value because we think it can buy us things that we value more.

Is there any solution to this apparent absurdity?

Some of my thoughts on these questions in my response next Friday, plus some further questions to enable you to clarify your own responses.   

November 13, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 3

Here is the final part of our discussion of freedom of expression - a few questions to think about when considering whether there should ever be limits on freedom of expression, and if so, why.  Now we have had a chance to reflect, I would be very interested to find out, either via your blog comments or tweets, whether you think the  Question Time panel should in principle include elected members of all legal political parties and/or whether you think scientific advisers to the Government can say, in any context of their choosing, what they believe to be the scientific truth without reprisal.

1)  What is the scope of 'expression'?  Does it  or should it include, for instance: pornographic displays (themselves very difficult to define, as we may discuss at a later date!); the wearing of a religious symbol; wearing an armband; burning a flag or an effigy?

2)  How important is it to distinguish the restriction of speech from the regulation of speech?

3) How much of a difference does context make? e.g the age of the audience; the time of day; the occasion of a funeral or a satirical television programme?

4) Should we distinguish legal from moral limits? 

5) Clearly most of the debates centre on whether the alleged harm caused by the expression (eg. to personal safety or national security) outweighs the right to freedom of expression (if such there is) or the benefits resulting from freedom of expression (see Part 2).  But are rights and goods commensurable in this way?

6)  In any case, how can one tell what harms have been prevented by freedom of expression?  The crimes the speaker would have committed if s/he had not been able to vent her/his feelings in words or a visual demonstration?  The psychological damage the speaker would have suffered if s/he had not been able to give vent to their feelings and thoughts? 

7)  When freedom of speech (as opposed to the broader freedom of expression) is being discussed, it is sometimes defended by the argument that speech is not action, and it is actions that cause harm.  Is this a meaningful distinction?

8) Suppose it can be proved that the speech incites the action?  How easy is it to prove such a link?

9) Suppose the speech itself causes intense distress?

10)  Suppose the speech defames character and thereby causes economic or other loss?  (Libel laws certainly recognize this as a legitimate limit on freedom of speech.)

11)  Suppose the speech invades privacy?

As I said, I would be very interested to hear your views on the two recent debates concerning freedom of expression mentioned above.

Next week, with many of us feeling tensions between the credit crunch and the approach of festive shopping, we'll look  at the role money plays in the good life - how best to make it, invest it and spend it.


November 06, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 2

In response to the comments on last week's blog, I CERTAINLY did not mean to suggest that the less educated should be denied freedom of expression; I simply meant that denying people education can sometimes - clearly not always - make it more difficult for them to make full use of e.g access to parliament and the media i.e genuine freedom may involve not merely being permitted to do something, but also being able to develop the tools to do it effectively.  In what sense am I 'free' to buy food if I have no money?

This week we're going to look briefly at four of the arguments which have been put forward in favour of freedom of expression.

1)  Pursuit of truth (see J.S.Mill On Liberty 1859; Milton Areopagitica 1644).

The idea here is that truth is better served by a free and open exchange and discussion of ideas and information.  This process also needs to be ongoing: Mill, for instance, argues that even a true belief is liable to become dead dogma, rather than a genuine and understood conviction, if it is not challenged. 

- It follows from this that freedom of expression is only valuable if truth can be shown to be valuable.  Furthermore, if it is argued that truth, even if valuable, is not always the overriding value in every circumstance, then there could be then be arguments for limiting freedom of expression if it e.g. compromised public security or private peace of mind.  (More of this next week)

-  Is it really the case that freedom of expression always leads to truth and understanding?  Clearly not, but it could be argued that open debate is more likely to be conducive to truth than censorship.

- What of those forms of expression that are not even aimed at truth - that are intended to create beauty alone, for example?

2) Fundamental to democracy

In this case the idea might be that each person subject to democratic decisions should be entitled to have a voice in the making of those decisions.

- The above might hold, in different ways, in both participatory and representative democracies.  It could be argued that in representative democracies freedom of expression is important in order that the political representatives know what the people they are representing think and feel.

- Freedom of expression might be thought vital for effective opposition in a democracy, and for checks on power.

- BUT, if the case for freedom of expression rests on democratic ideals, then will there not be situations in which the voices of the majority effectively silence the voices of the minority/minorities?

- ALSO a democratic majority might actually legislate to limit freedom of expression, or at any rate certain forms of it.  The thinking here might be that it is O.K to have limits on freedom of expression within a democracy, providing those limits are democratically authorized.  But one might also think that there is a perhaps inevitable tension here, if freedom of expression is thought to be crucial for the running of a genuine democracy, as suggested above.

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic ideals, then does this mean that the only kind of expression which can be defended is that which is needed for participation in the democratic process?

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic principles, does this mean that it is not important in a non-democratic framework? 

3) A fundamental right?

See, for example, Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution.

- This, of course, will depend in turn on whether you think the notion of 'rights' makes any sense.

4) Fundamental to psychological well-being?

- There might be a deep need for (instead of/as well as a right to) freedom of expression, as a vital ingredient of a deep need for liberty in general.

- Hearing the views of others is a key part of treating them with respect and according them dignity (a point which can also be made in terms of a defence based on rights). 

- 3) and 4) raise the issue of whether freedom of expression is to be defended on the grounds of its rightness, or its goodness, or both.  

That's enough for this week!  Next time we'll look at possible limits on freedom of expression.

Have a great weekend.

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