Peter Tatchell debates issues about free speech and its appropriate limits with the President of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl (who just gave a platform to David Irving and Nick Griffin) and Brendan O'Neill from Edge. You can watch this half-hour debate here (should open in a new window). Tatchell makes a clear and reasonable case for limits to free speech in certain circumstances. Oddly Tryl seems to feel he has an obligation to give a platform to extremists.
I'm not a great fan of Heidegger, but if you have to read him what better way than to have Hubert Dreyfus take you through Being and Time. Life is short. If you are going to approach this monumentally obscure book at all you need a guide. Everyone does. Or else, perhaps, it would be wiser to avoid the book altogether. I believe F.R.Leavis' line on certain books was 'The critic has his economies' - i.e. critics don't need to read everything. But if you feel that you really should grasp Heidegger's main themes...then you definitely will need some help.
If you are at Berkeley, then no problem. But now we can all sit in on Dreyfus' lectures as all 22 (so far) of his Fall lecture series are available on iTunes - in the iTunesU. If you have the iTunes software on your computer, this link should take you to the podcast lectures. Also Dreyfus has links that should get you to them here. If that doesn't work, go to iTunes, then to iTunesU, then to UC Berkeley, then Arts and Humanities...Each lecture is about one and a quarter hours and is unedited - so it really does feel like sitting in on a course. Dreyfus is clearly a popular teacher - the lecture room is full to bursting.
The latest Philosophy Bites podcast is on Isaiah Berlin's pluralism. Henry Hardy, who worked closely with Berlin for many years, gives a clear and interesting account of Berlin's idea and in the process gives interesting insights into the kind of man Berlin was. He also mentions in passing that in 1997 Tony Blair wrote to Berlin seeking intellectual support...
Raymond Chandler's gumshoe Marlowe has often been described as an existential outsider. I'm reading Judith Freeman's book about Marlowe's marriage to a much older woman, Cissy, The Long Embrace, at the moment. On pp.79-80 she makes an interesting point about Chandler's Los Angeles, how it embodied a new kind of American loneliness where people
'found themselves marooned in paradise, lonely amidst abundance and incredible wealth, lonely in a seemingly incurable fashion, lonely in spite of the crowds and opportunities, because suddenly they had been cut off from their past, from all that was familiar and had given meaning and shape to their lives, a widespread feeling that took hold in large numbers of people'
Out of this world of lonely people, the fast food joint emerged:
'Fast food is about estrangement and existential ennui, about loneliness, and boredom, and absence, and an arresting of traditional patterns of family life and social context. Who cares if the meal is inferior? If it gets you out in the world? If it gives you something to do? And the chance of meeting other people.'
Yes. Possibly. There must be a reason that French existentialism emerged out of the French equivalent of the fast food joint, the Parisian café...Lonely people smoking Gauloises and keeping warm chatting to each other.
And reassuring that there is no intrinsic link between inferior quality food and the conditions out of which an existentially rich art emerges...
Does academic philosophy drain the life from some of the questions that
matter most to us? Is there room for a more literary approach to
philosophy? Author of The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton, explains his conception of Philosophy in the latest interview for Philosophy Bites.
Biotechnology is opening up many possibilities. Athletes will soon be able to choose to inject substances that will produce genetic modifications that will dramatically improve their performance; parents will be able to specify many genetically controlled qualities for their offspring. This is not the world our parents and grandparents inhabited. How should we treat these developments?
In his short, highly-readable book The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, Michael Sandel comes out firmly against the pursuit of perfection by genetic enhancement. He, of course, defends biotechnical solutions to medical problems. It is when we attempt to ehance ourselves and others genetically that he objects.
Much of his argument turns on his notion of 'giftedness'. An athlete, for example, has a natural genetic endowment. According to Sandel, to go beyond this 'gift' is a kind of hubris on our part, a Promethean project that involves playing God. This sounds like a theological position. But Sandel believes his reasoning should have force with secularists too.
For Sandel there are three features of our moral landscape that will be transformed if we succumb to this desire to play God:
1. Humility. We will lose the sense of reverence that is appropriate to our fate. Instead we will end up acting with hubris towards our nature.
2. Responsibility. With increases in choice about what we are, responsibility explodes. The consequence will be burdensome.
3. Perhaps most important, though, is solidarity. Sandel believes that the price of enhancement would be a loss of human solidarity. Once we lose the sense that we are subject to contingencies of fate, the successful will, even more than now, see themselves as self-made.
Sandel's message is clear:
Rather than employ our new genetic powers to straighten 'the crooked timber of humanity,' we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings (p. 97)
Much of Sandel's argument will appeal to religious believers, particularly those who seek humility before God's will. But for atheists and agnostics, this may be harder to stomach. Why not improve ourselves if we can? Think of how wonderful it would be if we could increase the number of geniuses per capita, particularly if we could give them a compassion gene and a desire to improve the lot of humanity...In the area of sport much of Sandel's argument turns on his belief that watching bionic athletes slugging it out would become mere spectacle, and that part of what we value in sport is the limitations of the athletes. I'm not so sure about this. I'd like to watch a football match in which every player achieved the skill level of George Best or Maradonna. And watching the top marathon runners today is already like watching bionic athletes, but no less absorbing for us mere mortals.
Whether or not Sandel is right about these issues, this is a clear, entertaining and stimulating book about a topic that matters. Underlying it are major questions about what we value and why that any thinking person will want to address.