All entries for June 2008

June 11, 2008

The utility of ethics

The ethics exam is going to come hurtling down on Philosophy students this Saturday, and naturally this means I am desparately trying to remember whatever parts of it I learnt in the first place.

The mode of analysing ethics covered in the module proceeds by the method of "reflective equilibrium". Here's how it works -

First off, we look through our beliefs about a variety of morally challenging scenarios, and see what sort of intuitions they generate. So for example, imagine that you are on a run-away railway trolley hurtling down a track at 5 workmen. The train-track is running through a valley, so there is no possible way for them to escape death - unless that is you redirect the trolley onto a siding by pressing a big red button. BUT! Another unfortunate workman is sitting on this siding. If you redirect the trolley, you will undoubtably kill him. Yet many people think this is permissible.

Once we have our intuitions about a range of cases, we look and see whether there is an underlying rule which can explain them all. Perhaps there are several cases like this - we can imagine lots of scenarios in which, unless one person dies, five people will die. So we will make a general rule - it is better than one die than that five people die.

Once we have our generalisation, we put it to the test again. Are there situations where the rule allows something that our intuition rules out? Suppose that we are a doctor with the power to perform perfect transplants: anyone he transplants an organ into will survive, and not only that, will live just as well as if the organ was their own. Now it just so happens that five of our patients are going to die from organ failure - two are missing lungs, one needs a new heart, one needs a liver and a fifth needs a pair of kidneys. In to our surgery walks a freindly janitor, whose tissue type happens to match all five. We ask him if he will sacrifice himself so that we can save the five, but he regretfully declines. It so happens that we have a small pistol in our pocket...

Is it permissible for the doctor to proceed? By our previous principle, he should be allowed to. After all, if the one person dies, and the doctor uses his organs, the five will not die. This will be the better course of action according to the last principle. But our intuition says that the doctor may not proceed.

We now have two options - we can reject the principle, or reject the intuition. Maybe we think the principle is good enough that it is worth ammending our intuitive moral judgements - or maybe we think the intuition is so sacred we will need to refine our principle before it becomes tenable.

Reflective equilibrium is the point we arrive at when we have bounced our general rules and our native intuitions together until they start to stick. When we have made a culling of our intuitions and a refinement of our principles, we eventually decide that this, right here, is our ethical system.

I don't much like this mode of procedure. For one thing it's conservative. If we spend enough time, we can finesse our moral theories indefinitely until we reach the point at which they produce a 1:1 match with our intuitions. But whilst this could be seen as refinement of the theories, taking away sharp edges, to me it looks like dulling them down beyond the point of interest. What is incredible about Utilitarianism is that it demanded every person be counted as one in the moral calculation, irrespective of social position. What it achieved it achieved through radicalness. By finessing the parts of Utilitarianism we find hard to swallow, we may also slip the loop of any requirements it places upon us. To refine the theory to match our existing convictions is to neuter it.

Another problem I have with the level of theoretical discussion is that frequently, the points being made have bearing only conceivably on the theoretical level. When we live in a world where thousands die from starvation and grain is dumped from container ships when prices dip low, it is surely irrelevant whether we believe that it is the lack of equality between rich and poor that is at issue, or the lack of priority that is given to the poor on an absolute scale.

I hold out hope for ethics' potential for making the world a better place, in what I can only think of as a trickle-down effect. Abstract debate informs less abstract debate, feeds into think-tanks, informs policy groups, and eventually arrives in the political realm as reforms in one direction or another. But to me the link seems painfully tenuous.

June 09, 2008

Freud and the first years

On the 3rd of March 2007 and on the 4th of April 1920, two workmen (John Parisman and Ulum the Bold) were doing excavations on the same stretch of the space-time continuum not far outside central Coventry. Some paperwork in head office had gotten crossed and consequently, when Parisman laid down the chrono-pipe in 2007 Ulum screwed it in in 1920 with a right-handed monkey wrench that wasn't due to exist for another two billion years. Thus it was that the following conversation snippet:

"Yeah, but what if you don't have a father? Steve - big Steve - he hasn't got a dad. So why would he want to do his mum then?"

Fell backwards in time from the mouth of the first-year undergraduate who had uttered it in 2007 while waiting for chips and arrived, more or less intact, at the ears of Sigmund Freud while he sat at his writing desk in the office over his practice. As often happens in cases such as this, the words were translated into German.

For a moment Freud sat in silence.

"Kein Vater." He said, softly. "Kein Vater."

With great solemnity he took up his pen and jabbed it into the leather surface of the desk. Twisting it to a violent angle he snapped the nib, hurled the pen-stub against the wall where it spattered blue ink. Pushing back his chair with sudden violence he rose, grabbing the unfinished manuscript for "Das Ich und dad Es" and pitching it into the smouldering awls lining the fireplace.

"Kein Vater!" He yelled as the flames took to the pages. "Kein Vater!" The cheap ink boiled from the paper and turned the smoke rising into the room a filthy purple. The clouds whirled in lazy purple whirls until Freud opened the windows and the dirty gas was drawn out. The wizened man screamed out across the cobbled street:

"Kein Vater! Was wenn man Kein Vater hat geschehen würde? Was! Kein Vater, oh mein Gott, kein Vater!"

He grabbed hold of the ivy clinging to the outside wall and pushed out of the window, emerging in a swirl of purple, his flat shoes skidding against the flints of the wall. He swayed unevenly for a second and then began to clamber up the thick ivy, occasionally putting one hand around the drainpipe for extra leverage. By the time he had reached the roof a crowd was staring.

"Kein Vater!" Freud screamed, slipping from slate tile to slate tile. "Kein Vater!" He yelled at the gulls. "Kein Vater!" He yelled at the clouds. "Kein verdammt Vater!" He yelled at the world.

Eventually he was shot by a passing mountebank with an inordinately accurate catapult, cracking his temple and sending him hurtling to the floor like a limp sack of books.

This was all sorted out in the same instant when George Potts came back on duty and gave Ulum and Parisman a loud drubbing and a pay drop.

June 03, 2008


Here are some (rejected) publicity blurbs for the Baby Chimp productions WSAF show.

1. Euphemistic

Baby Chimp Productions, the Warwick sketch group, return to WSAF with a taster from their Edinburgh Fringe Festival comedy show. So imagine you're in Amsterdam. You're on a "business" trip. Maybe you're a banker. Or a businessman. And you're walking along a canal path looking in all the shop windows at the business. But most of the business you're seeing you could get back home, even if it was more likely your wife would find out. So you start looking into the back alleys of the business district. Maybe check out one or two of the secluded professional businessmen's clubs. And after maybe three, four hours you hit on this place where you can get two dwarf businesses and an amputee for under thirty bucks. OUR SHOW IS THAT BUSINESS.

2. Edgy

Baby Chimp Productions will be hitting up WSAF with their fit new sketch show "An Evening Without Dignity". This show is like a cool blast of coke straight to the main brain, on acid, with a tequila slammer straight through your nose. If you've seen public defecation and live mutilation then you have seen fucking nothing compared to Baby Chimp. This show will rip your head off and shit in your nostrils and don't you think you can get away - we're blasting out for 60 cool minutes of pure comedy pain! Parental Advisory - EAT YOUR PARENTS.

3. Low self-esteem

Baby Chimp productions have made a sketch show, it is called "An Evening Without Dignity" that is because it is undignified and I suppose that would make it funny for you, I guess. We actually talked for quite a long time about the name but the name was really hard so in the end this was the best we could come up with even though we didn't think it was that good. But some of our other names were worse, for instance we could have called it "We're going to make you laugh until you cry" because that is a descriptive rather than a proper noun and it lacks punch. Also I wanted it to say "We're going to make you laugh until milk comes out your nose" because that is less violent. I guess we've done pretty okay, come and see it?

4. Daily Mail

"An Evening Without Dignity" is the only chance you have to laugh since Jim Davidson was CRUELLY ARRESTED for tax evasion. This TIMELESS ENTERTAINER was FORCED from his home and made to live in a MANSION in DUBAI, where he was safe from the tax inspectors. WHEN WILL THE MADNESS END? One after the other everything that makes Britain Britain is being crushed out of our nation by BONKERS BRUSSELS BUREAUCRATS and the TIDE OF ASYLUM SEEKING BENEFIT CHEATS! See Baby Chimp productions' new show - WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE CHANCE!!!

June 2008

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