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.
One of the last talks for this term was made by Edward Cearns, an Old Chigwellian who represents the city centre of Cambridge on Cambridgeshire County Council. He made a moving speech uniting politics and equality. The fact that he spoke from his own experience and shared his own ideas and understandings made his talk interesting, easy to understand, and at the same time made everyone in the room think about the world we live in. Mr Cearns spoke of Equality and explained to us what a politician could do about it. He focused mainly on the topic of equality of sexuality, as it was a topic very important to him and also something he has been working on in his council. He was very proud to announce that his council has supported his proposal to fly the rainbow flag every February starting next year.
Mr Cearns also brought to our attention two charities he has been working with, both of which support homosexual, bisexual or transgender people. “sexYOUality” has been involved in telling the story of homosexuals who had to deal with the prejudice of the last century, Section 28, and were treated as “ill”. It also supports young people to come to terms with their sexuality. The second one was “Stonewall”. They had recently produced a film called “Free” also presenting the life of homosexual, bisexual and transgender people nowadays.
I think everyone enjoyed the talk and the “Williams Project” would be happy to welcome back Mr Cearns.
Tim Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, started the year’s Williams Project meetings in style with two different but related talks on the theme of Tragic Dilemmas.
The first, aimed at younger students, was a more general discussion about what a dilemma is, and how we go about resolving them. Our thoughts centered around “Sophie’s Choice”, a novel and film based on real situations in Nazi concentration camps, where Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber. Tim showed how absurd it is to used any kind of calculation (e.g. utilitarianism) in making this decision. He stressed the importance of empathy, of imaginative involvement in the decider’s dilemma, as an important way by which we can use these situations to think about moral choices.
The second talk, a more formal lecture aimed at older students, was a detailed examination of moral philosophy based on a scene from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the Chorus describe the Greek king’s dilemma between abandoning the expedition to Troy (and thereby losing all his status among his fellow kings) and sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. (The goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.) His decision, to kill his daughter, successfully gets the ships to Troy, and leads directly to military success and glory; but it also leads to his own death, as on his return his wife Clytemnestra kills him in revenge for their daughter’s life. Tim drew attention to Agamemnon’s words just after he has made his choice: “May all be well” – a desperate plea, made by one knowing it won’t be. Agamemnon was in a completely messy situation – there was no way out, and no moral system could help him. Tim’s point was that there were two contrasting ways of looking at the moral world. One, put forward by Plato and moral-system people such as utilitarians, claimed that by using such and such a system one can always find the right thing to do, that all can “be well”; the other, shared by Aeschylus, Bernard Williams and himself, was that there are lots of situations in life where this won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out. In these circumstances what might help us a little is not a moral system, but an imaginative empathy developed from our own experience of life, and our experience of literature and drama. When we watch Agamemnon on stage we in some strange way feel what it’s like to be in his shoes, and gain some moral strength and wisdom from the experience.
For a second time Chigwell School was lucky enough to hear the incredibly busy and well-known Peter Tatchell. His subject was the importance of opposing both Islamists and the EDL, and he carefully outlined his subtle position with regard to the threats to human rights posed by organised religion, particularly, at this time, to women and LGBT people from extreme Islamism, and the threats to Muslim communities posed by right-wing white extremists. He described how twice he has challenged both groups simultaneously, supporting East London Muslims against EDL intimidation, while at the same time opposing homophobia in those same communities. As ever he spoke clearly, with a controlled and reasonable passion, with a powerful command of facts and arguments.
Questions covered areas such as the relative priority of defending gender and sexual rights as against economic ones: it was argued by some that economic justice was more important.
This year’s Williams Project programme kicked off with a visit from Dr Naomi Goulder of the New College of Humanities and an insight into the morality system. Focusing largely on Bernard Williams’ (the Williams Project’s namesake) work, Dr Goulder gave an insight into many of the potential issues with the way we judge actions as ‘moral’ every day, ranging from the fact that luck is nearly always over-looked when judging an individual’s actions, to whether morality is a universal concept which applies to all in the same way or is instead something subjective. Thanks go to Dr Goulder for providing such a profound talk and an excellent start to the year ahead. We were delighted to have Patricia Williams with us too, and Jacquetta Straker from the NCH.
Continuing, from Richard Barham’s talk, the Olympic theme, and reinforcing the PE department’s week of Olympic lessons, our own Mrs Bint and Mr Wille led a presentation and discussion on cheating in these most revered games. Interesting similarities emerged, from nationality switching (a Cretan competed for Ephesus; Zola Budd changed from South African to British), through familiar bribery to performance enhancing (Pelops’ winged horses, modern-day drugs), we realised that, when national pride and lots of money are at stake, not a lot has changed.