Anyway, I have signed up for a one-year MA in Philosophy by Research at the University of Buckingham, a programme led by Professor Sir Roger Scruton. This seems like a good way (if not the only way) these days to learn something intelligent in a top-end academic environment while avoiding petulant stupid SJWs denying elementary reality and railing against imagined Nazis:
The course starts in the autumn. Watch this space.
I learned about this course from someone who did it and who warned (correctly) that philosophy is ‘horribly addictive’. I’ve been warming up by listening to various podcasts such as Philosophy Bites and The Partially Examined Life. Both suffer from wearying self-conscious progressive tendencies of different sorts, but they help one gallop through some of the Great Themes of philosophy down the centuries.
These days philosophy as explored in Western universities is heavily compartmentalised into squabbling specialities. But the great questions never change much:
What is anything?
How do we know?
How do we know that we know?
Are there moral rules or moral principles, or just moral case-by-case intuitions? Whatever the answer, where do the rules/principles/intuitions come from? What makes them ‘moral’ or binding?
What causes something? Is anything ’caused’? Can causation run backwards into the past, as some baffling quantum mechanical phenomena seem to suggest?
Is there a mind or a soul? Do animals have them? Insects? Stones? How to tell?
Does neuroscience by showing how things happen for microscopic reasons in our heads gnaw away at all ideas of moral responsibility?
Do numbers exist? Do colours exist? Do they exist in the same way as, say, unicorns or the bald current King of France? They’re all made-up concepts: you can’t touch or even (perhaps) define any of them!
Is it all empty word-play?
And so on. The head of the philosophy pin is packed with dancing angels.
In the broad and always disconcerting area of Ethics there seem to be two broad categories for identifying what makes acts ‘moral’:
Deontology: Acts are moral (or not) in themselves: it’s just wrong to kill or torture someone under most circumstances, regardless of the consequences. See Kant.
Consequentialism: Acts are moral according to their consequences: killing or torturing someone leads to bad results or sets bad precedents, so (sic) we should not do it.
Then there is Particularism: the idea that there are no clear moral principles as such.
Thus to the Trolley Problem in all its now luxuriant versions: under what circumstances is it either the ‘right’ thing to do (or at least a morally defensible thing to do) to kill or act to cause the death of A to save X, Y and Z?
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations.
A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.
Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?
Would it change your view if the people needing the organs were themselves a team of amazing scientists poised to find new medicines that might save millions more people? Or if the surgeon finds out that the traveler is a likely murderer en route to kill his daughter?
Remember the heated exchanges over torture here a few years back?
The basic claim these days is that torturing someone (ie inflicting pain to extract information) is a priori wrong and ruled out both on principle and as a matter of law. But what exactly is the principle here?
Imagine a Jumbo Jet catches fire on take-off and the pilot knows that it is going to crash. S/he has a ghastly choice to make. To steer the plane towards the city centre where the crash will kill hundreds if not thousands of people? Or steer it towards the suburbs where the crash will cause far fewer deaths?
Most of us (and I daresay most pilots) would instinctively steer the plane towards a crash site where there will be fewer ground deaths. It’s just OBVIOUSLY ‘better’ that (say) 80 people on the ground die rather than 800! That’s a clear consequentialist idea.
We’d also think it odd if not unacceptable if the pilot’s training manual instructed the pilot to toss a coin or ignore any possible ground casualties in such circumstances. Bring the plane down ASAP in the nearest place, wherever it is!
No! Isn’t there a duty on the pilot to minimise ‘extra’ deaths on the ground, even in (especially in?) these appalling circumstances?
Fine. We’ve established the proposition that in this case it’s morally much better that 80 die than 800. The relatives of any people killed on the ground in the suburbs can’t sue the airline for murdering their family members. Their deaths were (on one way of looking at it) simultaneously intended by the pilot but also ‘just bad luck‘.
So what’s the objection to torturing someone to try to save 800 from an imminent terrorist blast, the more so if the tortured person will not die as a result?
Or what’s the objection to the doctor quietly bumping off the tourist to save the five transplant patients in the example above?
Or to someone shoving a fat person off the bridge to try to stop the runaway trolley that otherwise will kill ten?
Just say there is a runaway trolley poised to kill ten people down the track. The only way to stop the trolley is to push that fat person off the bridge. You have a split second to decide.
Squelch. Fat person dismembered. Ten other lives saved. Fair trade!
You’re prosecuted for murdering the fat person. You plead extenuating circumstances. A jury acquits you. A jury statement says that the jury agonised over the moral and legal issues at stake, but concluded that in these terrible circumstances with no time to waste it was legally justifiable that you kill one who otherwise would not have died to save ten.
Phew. Consequentialism/utilitarianism wins!
But then the police start digging deeper. They find on your PC all sorts of horrendous fantasy videos you’ve made where you WANT to see fat people getting squashed by heavy vehicles.
Is it possible that even though you saved ten lives by killing the fat person, you longed to find yourself in that situation and enjoyed killing the fat person? That THAT killing as an end-in-itself was your real goal, not the for you incidental or even fortuitous consequence of saving those other people?
How to weigh your inner motives and schemes against the seemingly defensible consequences? Mens rea or actus reus?
Philosophy. Never a dull moment.
To be continued…