Dr. Florian Steinberger, philosopher and lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, spoke to both branches of the Williams Project. He spoke to us about two very different philosophical topics, beginning with “animal rights”: what are they? Do animals really have them and should we respect them? There were multiple discussions, questions and debates on whether animals could really have preferences and feelings to be deserving of rights as humans do. We also covered the issue of why we are willing to protect them to a certain extent, nonetheless, also willing to consume them. We outlined the religious, moral and health aspects linked to the matter to delve deeper into if we could and should give animals rights. The discussion was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us of all age groups, being a very controversial and interactive talking point.
He continued with second session on the topic of “infinity” – a more mathematical approach towards philosophy and the possibility and impossibility of infinity, the contradictions and the proof – in particular whether some kinds of infinity can be greater than others (for example the infinity of real numbers can be shown to be larger than the infinity of integers). Although complex for a few of us(!), many were able to grasp the concept of how infinity could be perceived; it was an engaging and stimulating lecture on a rather unfamiliar topic.
We are grateful for the discussions led by Dr. Steinberger, and thank him for enlightening us on two of the many contemporary philosophical issues we face today.
Mark Pottle is Isaiah Berlin Legacy Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. Having studied Modern History at Sheffield University and done his doctoral research at Oxford University, he continues his work on modern British history at Oxford and with emphasis on Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was a Latvian-born Jewish philosopher and political theorist, whose family came to England in 1921, some years after the Russian Revolution. Mr Pottle gave us an insightful talk on democracy – “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried” as said by Winston Churchill. It was the principal idea behind this quotation that the discussion revolved around: the huge injustices we see in modern day democracies while also knowing its worse alternatives. Mr Pottle also introduced Isaiah Berlin to those of us who had previously been unfamiliar with him, and along with that – his key ideas on Liberalism, Pluralism and their place in, and importance to, democracy.
On the 26th of September, author and historian Simon Webb spoke to the Williams Project on the idea of British concentration camps after the second world war, where German prisoners of war were kept to provide forced labour for farming and rebuilding after the war. This is an idea that makes the listener inherently uncomfortable, and a topic that most historians simply gloss over. However, throughout the hour, Simon Webb went into great detail around the events and details that resulted in this, the loopholes that allowed surrendered prisoners of war to be kept for forced labour, and the eventual cancellation of the program during the Nuremburg Trials. Simon kept the audience captivated throughout the talk, which culminated in his excellent answering of the questions proposed to him from the attentive audience.
Our topic on May 24th was ‘The ethics of shooting a young Adolf Hitler’ – a talk and discussion led by Mr Freddie Meier (MFL department). Mr Meier took us through various scenarios, real or imagined, about the early years of Adolf Hitler, before expanding his theme into a full discussion of utilitarian and deontological ethics: whether an action is good because the consequences are good, or because the action is just good in itself. We soon understood that there is no easy easy of deciding whether an action is good or not, and left the meeting puzzled yet enlightened.
On Tuesday December 1st, the Williams Project was visited by the philosopher John Vorhaus from the UCL Institute of Education. John led us in a provocative and controversial discussion of the treatment of human beings as having a higher moral status than non-human animals. John introduced us to the thesis of Moral Individualism, which asserts that, when assessing what we owe to a creature – any creature – we must look at its actual characteristics, not just the species to which it belongs. We then used this idea to determine the extent to which human dignity should be applied to all humans, including the profoundly cognitively impaired.
We learnt about the philosopher J. McMahan, who argues that profoundly cognitively impaired people are afforded their moral status due to the ‘special relations’ they have with those around them. McMahan applies this logic to household pets also, who he argues only have moral status due to their relation to their owner. John also introduced us to Nozick’s philosophy which states that all humans are deserving of moral status purely because they are human. The talk was thought-provoking and enjoyable, and I hope that John will be able to revisit us in the future.
This week we had Marianne Talbot as the guest speaker at the Williams project. She is Director Of Studies in Philosophy at the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education.
Her first talk was to the younger members, and was about “Trolleyology” – the thought experiments around whether and under what conditions individuals would intervene to change the direction or progress of a runaway trolley car. If one was heading for 4 people, and you could switch the points so it killed someone else, would you? We soon realised that decisions like this weren’t as simple as utilitarianism would suggest: many in the audience were reluctant to intervene directly to save four by killing one. And would you push a fat man off a bridge to his death to save the four?
Marianne’s second talk is summarised below:
The main theme of the fantastic talk she gave was on whether, given the power of modern biology, there are moral justifications for placing limits (or at least constraints) on the frontiers of academic research, even if it saves lives. The talk was very interactive, with people from many backgrounds getting involved and asking questions; some with interests in philosophy and religion, others with backgrounds in biology and chemistry. People also asked Marianne questions that were related to ethics but not to bioethics, hence widening the scope of the talk, such as the consequences of bio-weapons in Syria to the cure for AIDS. The effects of the lecture could be felt immediately, with many different groups in Chigwell taking on the discussion of other ethical issues such as Abortion and Euthanasia, as well as providing inspiration for the newly founded Biomedical Society.
On the whole the talk was very interesting and informative, leaving the people who attended the talk significantly more knowledgeable about the complex world of bio-ethics and ethics in general. We thank Marianne for finding the time in her busy schedule to come and talk at the Williams Project, and we hope that in the future she might be able to find the time for another lively and fascinating talk at the Williams Project.
Ben Kennedy and Rajas Chitnis
This week’s Williams Project meeting saw Alex Wade of Birmingham City University give a wide-ranging talk on ‘The Happy Consciousness of Pac-Man’. The much-loved, chomping, yellow character was analysed not just as a game but as an influence and reflection of ’80s and modern society, whether it be in his RAVE-like habit of popping pills or in his consumerist desire to never stop eating. We’d like to thank Mr Wade for his excellent talk which enlightened us not just on video games but also gave us an insight into some of the wider aspects of our culture and technology.
Mr Wade started by warming up the audience with some ’80s jokes, before talking about ’80s culture and its parallelism to the game itself. He carefully explained the idea of Pac-Man, that you play as a small, yellow creature who must eat power pellets in order to eat ghosts, all inside a maze from which there is no escape. As you get to higher and higher levels, the mazes become more complex and difficult to escape from. He spoke elegantly about the game’s popularity in the ’80s, and also about how it is perceived by some to be more well-suited to females than males, as the ghosts never die when they are eaten, but merely float back to the “ghost box”, unlike most modern video games in which the characters often die. He also kept the audience entertained with fun facts about the game – for example, he told us that the shape of the character Pac-Man was originally inspired by a pizza with one slice missing.
However, for me, the most impressive part of Mr Wade’s speech was the final part, in which he expanded on his ideas about Pac-Man’s link to capitalism. In a broad, sweeping gesture, he stated: “Pac-Man is all about eating.” And so, he went on to say, is life. Pac-Man must eat power pellets in order to eat ghosts in order to live, so that it can eat more power pellets in order to eat more ghosts etc. In the same way, the population of a capitalist society are trapped in a cycle of consuming for the sake of consuming, buying more and more goods just to thrive in society. A cycle from which escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Of course, the hugely challenging question which this point causes us to ask is “is there a better alternative?” Would it be better to have a society with poor consumption (Communism) or one with excessive consumption?
A fascinating message delivered in a clear, confident manner, it is certain that all those who were present at Mr Wade’s talk will be thinking about it for a long time, and many thanks must go to the speaker for a thought-provoking session.