Category Archives: Philosophy

Stacie Friend: “Why Do We Care about Fictional Characters?”

Dr Stacie Friend, from Birkbeck College, University of London, spoke to both branches of the Williams Project. She asked us why, when we know they don’t exist, do we still care for characters in stories and films? In particular, she asked if emotional responses to fiction are the same kind of emotions which we experience in real life, and, secondly, whether such emotions are irrational?

She set out these problems in the form of the ‘Paradox of Fiction’:

  1. We experience emotions toward fictional characters, situations and events.
  2. We do not experience emotions when we do not believe in the existence of the objects of emotion.
  3. We do not believe in the existence of fictional characters, situations and events.

It was a very interactive afternoon, with some very stimulating contributions. Stacie continued the discussion into the evening, and we are very grateful to her for her time and expertise.

Mark Pottle: ‘”The worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”: Winston Churchill, Isaiah Berlin and Democracy’

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.

Ashok Oberoi

John Gardner: ‘Holding on and letting go: why keep the life you already have? And how should you be compensated when things go wrong?’

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.

Angus Brown

Freddie Meier: The ethics of shooting a young Adolf Hitler

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.

Philosophy at Reading: Global warming? It’s not my fault! AND Jessica Rabbit, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

A team of philosophers from the University of Reading (Geraldine Ng, Joe Donnolly and Rhianwen Daniel) descended on Chigwell for a double-bill of philosophy, centred around our responsibility (or lack of it) for global warming. Why shouldn’t I drive my gas-guzzling 4×4? What difference would not driving actually make to the temperature of the planet and the sea-level around the Maldives? Through carefully structured questioning, the team from Reading teased out thoughtful responses from our students, and made us look again at what might have seemed simple ethical questions.

philosophy at reading

John Vorhaus: Are we justified in treating human beings as having a higher moral status than non-human animals?

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.

Handout

Jada Coker

John Vorhaus

Marianne Talbot – Trolleyology, and Bioethics: Security and Defence

marianne talbot

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

Powerpoints:

Trolleyology

Bioethics

Peter Walling and Jagveen Tyndall: Consciousness – scientific and mystical approaches

On Tuesday, 2nd December 2014, Peter Walling and Jagveen Tyndall (both Old Chigwellians) visited the Williams Project to give the final talk of the term. They both gave highly interesting talks on consciousness, though both talks were very different. Continue reading

Bernard Williams Philosophy Lecture: Professor Tim Chappell – “Tragic Dilemmas”

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.

Mr S. Goodfellow and colleagues: “P4C”

Chigwell’s philosopher-in-chief and four Remove students (Adam Goriparthi, Max Humphreys, Tom Lockley and Michael Newman) led the Williams Project in a demonstration of the P4C (Philosophy for Children) method. We watched a ‘stimulus’ video about a near-death experience, in small groups generated questions we’d like to discuss, voted on the two we’d like to consider in more depth, and then had an open discussion on these two. Our two chosen questions were: “Can near-death experiences be medically explained?” and “If there were such a thing as life after death, why would there be life after death?”.

A really interesting afternoon. Mr Goodfellow’s P4C club will restart in September (Tuesdays of Week A, 4:15, RS1).

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