(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ethics

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”*…

Clockwise from top: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe

How four women defended ethical thought from the legacy of positivism…

By Michaelmas Term 1939, mere weeks after the United Kingdom had declared war on Nazi Germany, Oxford University had begun a change that would wholly transform it by the academic year’s end. Men ages twenty and twenty-one, save conscientious objectors and those deemed physically unfit, were being called up, and many others just a bit older volunteered to serve. Women had been able to matriculate and take degrees at the university since 1920, but members of the then all-male Congregation had voted to restrict the number of women to fewer than a quarter of the overall student population. Things changed rapidly after the onset of war. The proportion of women shot up, and, in many classes, there were newly as many women as men.

Among the women who experienced these novel conditions were several who did courses in philosophy and went on to strikingly successful intellectual careers. Elizabeth Anscombe, noted philosopher and Catholic moral thinker who would go on occupy the chair in philosophy that Ludwig Wittgenstein had held at Cambridge, started a course in Greats—roughly, classics and philosophy—in 1937, as did Jean Austin (neé Coutts), who would marry philosopher J. L. Austin and later have a long teaching career at Oxford. Iris Murdoch, admired and beloved philosopher and novelist, began to read Greats in 1938 at the same time as Mary Midgley (neé Scrutton), who became a prominent public philosopher and animal ethicist. A year later Philippa Foot (neé Bosanquet), distinguished moral philosopher, started to read the then relatively new course PPE—philosophy, politics and economics—and three years after that Mary Warnock (neé Wilson), subsequently a high-profile educator and public intellectual, went up to read Greats.

Several of these women would go on to make groundbreaking contributions to ethics…

Oxford philosophy in the early to mid 1930s had been in upheaval. The strains of Hegel-inspired idealism that had remained influential in Britain through the first decade of the twentieth century had been definitively displaced, in the years before World War I, by realist doctrines which claimed that knowledge must be of what is independent of the knower, and which were elaborated within ethics into forms of intuitionism. By the ’30s, these schools of thought were themselves threatened by new waves of enthusiasm for the themes of logical positivism developed by a group of philosophers and scientists, led by Moritz Schlick, familiarly known as the Vienna Circle. Cambridge University’s Susan Stebbing, the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship in philosophy in the UK, had already interacted professionally with Schlick in England and had championed tenets of logical positivism in essays and public lectures when, in 1933, Oxford don Gilbert Ryle recommended that his promising tutee Freddie Ayer make a trip to Vienna. Ayer obliged, and upon his return he wrote a brief manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), in defense of some of the Vienna Circle’s views. The book became a sensation, attracting attention and debate far beyond the halls of academic philosophy. Its bombshell contention was that only two kinds statements are meaningful: those that are true solely in virtue of the meanings of their constituent terms (such as “all bachelors are unmarried”), and those that can be verified through physical observation. The gesture seemed to consign to nonsense, at one fell swoop, the statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics.

This turn to “verification” struck some as a fitting response to strains of European metaphysics that many people, rightly or wrongly, associated with fascist irrationalism and the gathering threat of war. But not everyone at Oxford was sympathetic. Although Ayer’s ideas weren’t universally admired, they were widely discussed, including by a group of philosophers led by Isaiah Berlin, who met regularly at All Souls College—among them, J. L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, Donald MacNabb, Anthony Woozley, and Ayer himself. Oxford philosophy’s encounter with logical positivism would have a lasting impact and would substantially set the terms for subsequent research in many areas of philosophy—including, it would turn out, ethics and political theory…

A fascinating intellectual history of British moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century: “Metaphysics and Morals,” Alice Crary in @BostonReview.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we ponder precepts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that the seat of the action described above, The University of Oxford, received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated and/or employed many notables, including 72 Nobel laureates, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world. 

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“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.”*…

Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins…

Unlike ideas of air, food and water that allow us to think about the everyday resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth or justice don’t obviously cater to practical needs. On the contrary, these exalted ideals draw our gaze away from practical pursuits. They are imbued with grandeur precisely because of their superb indifference to mundane human concerns. Having knowledge is practically useful, but why would we also need the concept of knowledge? The dog who knows where his food is seems fine without the concept of knowledge, so long as he’s not called upon to give a commencement address. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth or justice appear to have been important enough to emerge across different cultures and endure over the ages. Why, then, did we ever come to think in these terms?

Friedrich Nietzsche grumbled that, when it came to identifying the origins of lofty ideas, philosophers had a tendency to be led astray by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they felt were the ‘highest concepts’, the ‘last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality’, they had reverently placed them ‘at the beginning as the beginning’, convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato’s eternal Forms, the mind of God, Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world – they had all served as cradles to higher concepts, offering them a suitably distinguished pedigree.

But to insist that higher concepts were bound to have higher origins, Nietzsche thought, was to let one’s respect for those ideas get in the way of a truthful understanding of them. If, after the ‘Death of God’ and the advent of Darwinism, we were successfully to ‘translate humanity back into nature’, as Nietzsche’s felicitous rallying cry had it, we needed to trace seemingly transcendent ideas such as knowledge, truth or justice to their roots in human concerns. Their origins weren’t empyrean (to be sought in the highest spheres) but distinctly sublunary (found in lowly practical needs). Nietzsche encouraged us to ask: what necessities might have been the mothers of those inventions? And what, if anything, do they still do for us?…

Matthieu Queloz (@matthieu_queloz) takes up Nietzsche‘s challenge: “Ideas that work.”

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* Epictetus

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As we root out first principles, we might spare a thought for Sir Alfred Jules “Freddie” Ayer (usually cited as A.J. Ayer); he died on this date in 1989. A philosopher associated with the the British humanist movement, he is best remembered as the champion of of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956). While he had a number of material disagreements with Nietzsche, Ayer shared his rejection of objective ethical values.

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“Despite the constant negative press covfefe”*…

(Roughly) Daily rarely addresses the topically-political, but today– Inauguration Day in the U.S.– is a special occasion. So, even as we witness the not-as-peaceful-as-it-should-have-been transfer of power, we might spare a thought for the legacy of our out-going President…

We are still grappling with what it means to have endured Donald J. Trump’s presidency while still repairing the historic carnage of this tumultuous period in American history. This Presidential Library is an attempt to provide the American and International communities a place to reflect on what the rise of White Nationalism has meant to our country and try to eradicate it from our political discourse…

Hall of Tax Evasion– one of a dozen exhibits

Tax evasion or the world’s worst businessman… why choose just one when you could have both? You’ve read The Art of the Deal – now take in volume II: the art of being smarter than all of you idiots. This mural showcases the staggering amounts of money one man declares to have lost, all in an effort to prove to the world that he’s actually a… winner…

… and so very much more

A troubled history of failure– putting the 45th President’s life and work into historical context, while documenting the damage done to American institutions and spirit: “The Donald J. Trump Library.”

* President Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 31/5/17

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As we face history, we might (or might not) send birthday greetings to Kellyanne Conway; she was born on this date in 1967. A pollster and political consultant, she served as campaign manager for Donal Trump in 2016, then as Special Counselor to (and surrogate for) the President from 2017.

During her tenure, Conway has been embroiled in a series of controversies: using the phrase “alternative facts” to describe fictitious and disproven attendance numbers for Trump’s inauguration; speaking multiple times of a “Bowling Green massacre” that never occurred; and claiming that Michael Flynn had the full confidence of the president hours before he was dismissed. Members of Congress from both parties called for an investigation of an apparent ethics violation after she publicly endorsed commercial products associated with the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. And in June 2019, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recommended that Conway be fired for “unprecedented” multiple violations of the Hatch Act of 1939.

Las summer, Conway stepped down from her Counselor position (after her daughter threatened to seek legal emancipation), though she still plays a surrogate role.

Kellyanne Conway is a member of the inaugural class of the “Hall of Enablers” at the Donald J. Trump Library.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 20, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Wherever I found a library, I immediately felt at home”*…

 

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The nation’s smallest library (now closed), Hartland Four Corners, Vt., 1994. “At the time I made this photograph, its entire collection of 70 boxes of books had been sold to a local used-book dealer for $125.”

 

In celebration of National Library Week, (Roughly) Daily is revisiting photographer Robert Dawson

There are over 17,000 public libraries in this country. Since I began the project in 1994, I have photographed hundreds of libraries in 48 states. From Alaska to Florida, New England to the West Coast, the photographs reveal a vibrant, essential, yet threatened system.

A public library can mean different things to different people. For me, the library offers our best example of the public commons. For many, the library upholds the 19th-century belief that the future of democracy is contingent upon an educated citizenry. For others, the library simply means free access to the Internet, or a warm place to take shelter, a chance for an education, or the endless possibilities that jump to life in your imagination the moment you open the cover of a book…

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Library, Death Valley National Park, Calif., 2009. “This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles.”

See more at American Library, peruse Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, and visit his site.

And while physical libraries are closed for the time being, don’t forget “7 digital libraries you can visit from your couch“– and the mother of all online library resources, the Internet Archive.

* Charles Simic

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As we check it out, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Who owns the future? This is the question at the heart of every stock market.”*…

 

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In November of last year, I opened a brokerage account. I had been reading simple, bullet-pointed introductions to financial literacy for a few months before that, manuals “for dummies” of the sort that I am conditioned to hold in contempt when their subject is, say, Latin, or the Protestant Reformation…

It was driven home to me repeatedly in my early efforts to build an investment strategy that, quite apart from the question of whether the quest for wealth is sinful in the sense understood by the painters of vanitas scenes, it is most certainly and irredeemably unethical. All of the relatively low-risk index funds that are the bedrock of a sound investment portfolio are spread across so many different kinds of companies that one could not possibly keep track of all the ways each of them violates the rights and sanctity of its employees, of its customers, of the environment. And even if you are investing in individual companies (while maintaining healthy risk-buffering diversification, etc.), you must accept that the only way for you as a shareholder to get ahead is for those companies to continue to grow, even when the limits of whatever good they might do for the world, assuming they were doing good for the world to begin with, have been surpassed. That is just how capitalism works: an unceasing imperative for growth beyond any natural necessity, leading to the desolation of the earth and the exhaustion of its resources. I am a part of that now, too. I always was, to some extent, with every purchase I made, every light switch I flipped. But to become an active investor is to make it official, to solemnify the contract, as if in blood…

Justin E. H. Smith (@jehsmith) wrestles with taking stock of one’s soul: “On the Market.”

* John Landgraf

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As we ponder the long and short of it all, we might recall that today is National Pig Day.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

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