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.
At this the first meeting of the year we were delighted to have with us Patricia and Jonny Williams, widow and son of Bernard.
John Gardner (Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford) introduced us to his topic by first discussing his step-son, now in the process of applying to do Philosophy at a Scottish university. He talked of the boy’s reluctance to move on to that new stage because of the inevitability of having to separate from his Sixth Form friends, something that was certainly on my mind and surely on the minds of some of the other audience members in similar positions. From this we began to debate the necessity of a ‘friend’, and it was suggested that a friend was someone who was the ‘most useful’. This prompted the question of whether letting go of ‘useful’ friends would create the opportunity for more ‘useful’ friends, as well as the response that surely friends are a crucial part of our identity, at least in the forming of our character. The other example John used was an instalment of ‘Charlie & Lola’ in which Lola won’t let go of a specific library book, which she reads upon every visit, only to arrive at the library one day to discover that another child is reading that book, and instead she becomes infatuated with a new one. Although quite a simplistic example, it did help to keep the philosophy relevant.
The choice we were constantly presented with (and voted repeatedly on) was the compensation mentioned in the title: should somebody who undergoes, for example, a car accident and loses a limb, be compensated with either the closest thing to what they lost, with a completely different opportunity to start something new – what in effect is best for them now, or with nothing at all? We discussed this in terms of people’s worth to society, and if it was worth the state or some other financial entity giving them compensation at all, but also in terms of whether, by the very nature of the car accident, their outlook and impact on society would be changed.
All in all a very thought-provoking talk, and a fantastic start to the next year of Williams Project lectures.
The meeting in progress
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
Cordelia Griffith (Howard Essay winner) and Katie Marshall (Mitchell) gave excellent presentations on their essays to a packed library, and dealt with some probing questions with cool skill. Cordelia spoke on “Does Dicey’s conception of the “rule of law” apply in a dictatorship?”, calmly and lucidly demonstrating how the Nazis, in their attempts to ensure that everything they did was technically ‘legal’, nevertheless broke some of Dicey’s rules about how a decent legal system would operate. Katie (“How close is a cure for Parkinson’s Disease?”) explained clearly and with passion some complex science, and focused on how stem cell research might ‘in a generation’ at least bring about clinical trials of the long-awaited cure to this debilitating illness.
The presentations were introduced by representatives of the judging panels, Graham Dixon and David Gower, who stressed the range and quality of this year’s entries, and the importance of letting one’s academic interests develop in ways not overly restricted by thoughts of ‘career’: the career will follow the interests.
Later the annual dinner was held, where we were addressed by Jessica Beagley (OC and former Mitchell winner). She reinforced the point made by the judges, explaining how her career had (already) taken many surprising twists and turns, from scientific research to political lobbying, yet with the common thread of her interest in physiology. It was a perfect way to end the evening.
Old Chigwellian Richard Barham, partner at city law firm SNR Denton, gave us a deep insight into some of complexities of corporate law. From detailing the different components of a pharmacy, through the way the UK government broke up British Rail, to the successful Olympic bid, Richard showed us, from his wide experience, both the variety of forms corporate law can take, as well as the similar demands it makes on detailed analysis and clear thinking. Subsequent discussion took us into the different realms of ethics and university law degrees.