Philosophy Matters

Here’s a recording of my talk for the Oxford Brookes series Why Philosophy Matters (there’s a facebook group too).

I take up as many good objections to the idea that philosophy doesn’t matter (it’s dead, it’s without content, its subject matter has been taken over by science, it makes no progress, etc) and then sift through what I think are the best replies.  I think some of the objections really do hit home.

In the end, I’m a pluralist about why philosophy matters — I think it matters in a number of different ways, some cosmic, some not. I don’t think it always matters — a great deal depends on the person who reads and thinks about it.  The same bit of Aristotle might not matter at all to you the first time you read it, but when you have a real live philosophical problem on your hands, finding an ally in Aristotle can matter a very great deal to you.




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Does Philosophy Matter?

I’m giving a talk this Wednesday at 18.00 in the Ashmolean Museum Education Centre, Oxford, for Oxford Brookes University  and Bloomsbury Publishing.  It’s about Why Philosophy Matters.

Philosophy has had a hard time in the press lately.  It’s said that philosophy is dead, that is is without content, that it has made no progress in nearly two and a half thousand years.  Philosophy departments have been closed by those who say it’s an unjustifiable expense.  Philosophers, memorably, have been called the gym teachers of academia.  Philosophical chestnuts like the problem of free will are said to have scientific solutions, not philosophical ones.  Is this criticism justified? Does philosophy still matter?

I’ll put it up here when I’ve tweaked it a bit.

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Politics and technology

Here’s a video I just discovered from a panel discussion I took part in at the philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn.  The debate is about the value of technology.  I argue, along with Langdon Winner, that technology isn’t neutral — in fact it can nudge us into particular political directions, whether we like it or not.  There are further worries about whether or not the technology we use actually remakes us in a way, rewires our brains. I have the feeling at least some of the changes are not for the better — I’m in the ‘Google makes you stupid’ camp I think.

You can watch the talk here.

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Values and the Warsaw climate talks

Here’s an extract from a piece for The European, on ethics and the Warsaw talks on climate change.

Instead of starting with the fact of the planet’s climate budget or even the history of emissions, we should start with thoughts about values. What matters to us, and what are we prepared to do for it? Is it simply money or do the lives of future generations matter? Are we prepared to pay something now to improve the lives of future people, a payment we know we’ll never get back? Or do we want cheap energy, and are we willing to harm the poor for it?

As George W. Bush said when opting out of the Kyoto treaty, ‘complying with those mandates would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs for workers and price increases for consumers.’ He might have been pointy-headed but at least he was clear. What leads to the bickering in climate talks, what keeps our sights low, what ends negotiations in deadlocks, walkouts, and half measures, is the thought that taking action on climate change would cost too much. Ignoring the history of emissions would be a mistake, but a worse mistake is allowing economic concerns to swamp moral ones.

You can read the whole thing here:  Do The Right Thing!


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Bartitsu on Sunday Brunch

sunday brunchMy associate Mr Cook and I took pleasure in demonstrating a bit of Bartitsu, the Victorian gentleman’s martial art, on Sunday Brunch on Channel 4.  You can watch the demo here. 

We were slightly hamstrung by lawyers, no doubt rightly concerned about showing anything too energetic on Sunday morning television.  It all went fine though, I think. If you’re interested in Bartitsu, I’m teaching an introductory course at the Idler right now.  You can book in here.

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Review of John Broome

I wrote a review of John Broome’s book, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, for the TLS, called ‘Justice for a Dollar A Day’.  It’s here if you’re a subscriber.  The headline comes from Broome’s surprising views about justice and goodness.  Here’s an extract from the review:

Surprisingly, Broome argues that goodness doesn’t demand much of us as individuals.  You could throw yourself at reducing your carbon footprint, spend your savings on a yurt and a sustainable life, but you’d do much more good, extend many more lives, by simply donating some money to help combat tuberculosis.  If you want to do something good, reducing your emissions is an ineffective choice.  On the other hand, governments really do have the power and resources to make a difference to the climate. Duties of goodness fall exclusively on them.

Individuals should think instead about justice.  Broome cites the World Health Organization’s estimate that the lifetime emissions of an average person in the West will wipe out more than six months of healthy human life. We’re all doing serious harm, and justice demands that we reduce our carbon footprints to zero.  Broome argues that we should do all the usual environmentally friendly things – don’t waste water, be frugal with energy – and then cancel out our remaining emissions by offsetting, paying for the removal of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere equal to our emissions.  For an average American this adds up to just $300 per year – your obligations to justice discharged for less than a dollar a day.  It’s a bold claim, as many environmentalists are incapable of discussing offsetting without mentioning the sale of indulgences.  Broome finds the usual objections wanting.

It’s a good book, I think.  Well worth reading.

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John Corvino on same sex marriage

Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, recently cancelled a talk on same sex marriage by John Corvino, head of philosophy at Wayne State University.  Here’s a bit from New York Times on the matter (the whole article is here).

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The college apparently re-invited him, following loud objections, and Corvino’s reply is here.

The current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine features a piece by Corvino on same sex marriage, and as his views are muffled elsewhere, it might be good to give them a hearing.  Here’s the article. The comments are open at talking philosophy.

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