(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ethics

“What’s so great about The Trolley Problem is that there is no right answer”*…

Long time readers will know of your correspondent’s fascination with the Trolley Problem (a thought experiment in ethics and psychology introduced in 1967 by Philippa Foot)– see here and especially here.

Should you pull the lever and sacrifice one person to save five?

Today, another variation…

From @ShitpostGate via @RogersBacon1.

* Chidi, The Good Place


As we ponder the imponderable, we might send over confident birthday greetings to Hastings Rashdall; he was born on this date in 1858. A philosopher, theologian, historian, and Anglican priest, he was a proponent of  ideal utilitarianism— and so would likely have had a quick and confident answer to the problem.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”*…

Andrea Casali: The Personification of History Writing on the Back of Time, early 1760s

The more that historians make their own experiences an explicit part of their work, David A. Bell argues, the harder it will become to let the sources speak clearly…

Although enrollments in college history courses have plunged in recent years, interest in the subject remains high, to judge from both the best-seller lists and history’s place in the gladiatorial combat known as American politics. We are, in many ways, saturated in history. But what purpose does it serve? Academic specialists and the general public alike seem more confused by this question than at any time in recent memory.

History has always had multiple purposes, of course. Among the oldest is moral education: providing examples of admirable character and conduct to emulate, and infamous character and conduct to shun. Equally venerable is the establishment of legitimate title, including, especially, to states: rulers have claimed the right to rule because of their descent from a line of predecessors stretching back into the mists of time. The great monotheistic religions, meanwhile, have looked to history to teach awe of God’s power and to reveal the unfolding of His plans for humanity.

But during the Enlightenment, a vision of history emerged that at least partially eclipsed these older ones: History with a capital H, history as a science. In this new vision, linked to the nascent social sciences, the study of history could reveal the regular, predictable laws that govern the development of all human societies, and therefore could help us understand not only the past but the present and future as well. During the French Revolution, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet composed one of the great early works along these lines, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (Ironically, he wrote it while in hiding from the revolutionary Terror.) He began with hunter-gatherer societies, worked his way up through the eighteenth century, and pointed to a glorious future in which humanity’s “indefinite advancement” would lead to the eradication of poverty and an extension of the human life span. Hegel and Marx, in their turn, saw History following determined paths toward a discernible and desirable future condition.

But in his new book, Singular Pasts, the historian Enzo Traverso writes, “The past no longer announces the future; it no longer contains any promise of redemption.” Even Marxist scholars, for all their continued belief in the importance of class, no longer have any confidence that the history of class struggle points toward the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the establishment of a more just society. Liberals who, after communism’s collapse, read Francis Fukuyama and hoped that History had reached an end point of sorts, at least to the extent that societies around the world were embracing a Western model of capitalism as well as moderate social democracy, have seen their dreams turn to nightmares. Very few historians still try to deduce universal laws from their often fragmentary and difficult source material or to predict the future. If any group of contemporary academics is forecasting what is to come in a convincing manner it is climate scientists, and if a specter is haunting the world today, it is the all too real specter of ecological doom.

Where has the fall of scientific history left us?…

A consideration: “Ego-Histories,” from @DavidAvromBell in @nybooks.

For a more optimistic answer, pair with Michael S. Roth‘s appreciation of historian/historiographer Hayden White: “The Ironic Radical: On Hayden White’s The Ethics of Narrative.”

* Winston Churchill


As we think back, we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 15, 2023 at 1:00 am

“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


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. 



“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.”

[image above: source]

* Epictetus


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.


“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


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.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 20, 2021 at 1:01 am

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