Thursday, March 29, 2007

New comment on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

For more new comments on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas see and scroll down - including a response by Ursula LeGuin herself, sent to Martha Allen Sherwood, in the context of discussions about the story...
Cheers - Dave

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The runaway trolley and brain damage

For a video-podcast of me outlining the basics of the trolley problem see: 

Some of you will have discussed in class the classic moral problem sometimes known as the runaway trolley case - where a trolley car is running out of control down a hill - and is about to kill 5 people, but you happen to be stood by a switch - with a lever: pull the lever and it switches trackes and the 5 people are safe.... but (there's always a 'but' in these examples) there is one person on the other track - do you pull the lever 'killing' 1 and 'saving' 5?

Now - you will recognise in this issues of Utilitarianism, and there are numerous variants that demonstrate some of the problems associated with assessing situations on the basis of utility... what if you knew some of the people - or if the 1 was a doctor, and the 5 were criminals on work-release - etc... Other variants include an example where there is no switch but you can push a man (in some version a fat man) in front [you are unable to put yourself in its path] and hereby save the 5 - is this different?

In surveys people are often reluctant to act when it involves an act which seems so directly like 'killing' - but I came across this interesting article in the New York Times which quotes a survey that seems to link answers to this variant version to areas of the brain - via a survey involving people with damage to certain parts of their brain. It is at:

If we accept this - what does the link between brain areas and moral choice say about the nature of moral choice itself?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Buddhism podcast 4

Yes, here is the latest Buddhism (RPE202) podcast. This is on 'views' - and is limited by my being a bit full of cold - but hopefully still makes some kind of sense..

It follows up on the some of the discussions we have had in class regarding the way in which it might be not just the content of religious beliefs and ideas that matter in Buddhist thought, but also the manner in which the views are held...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Horse Racing and Ethical Concerns

Well, as Cheltenham Festival (the racing one) comes to an end after the Gold Cup, I have spoke to a number of students who have had moral concerns about the status of horse racing - mostly jump racing...

Well- - I thought it was an intriguing topic for the blog..

The Animal Aid website at says:

Most people regard horse racing as a harmless sport in which the animals are
willing participants who thoroughly enjoy the thrill. The truth is that, behind
the scenes, lies a story of immense suffering. Approximately 15,000
foals are born into the closely-related British and Irish racing industries
each year, yet only a third go on to become racers. Those horses who do not
make the grade may be slaughtered for meat or repeatedly change hands in a
downward spiral of neglect. Of those horses who do go on to race, around 375
are raced to death every year.
Beneath its glamorous fa├žade, commercial horse racing is a ruthless industry motivated by financial gain and prestige. Cruelty? You can bet on it!

And a campaign to ban the use of the whip says (see: )

Why should the whip be banned?
ITS USE IS TO PROMOTE UNNATURAL SPEED - The overiding reason for using a whip upon a racehorse is to get it to perfom at its absolute optimum - to encourge it to try harder or run faster than it would under natural conditions. This is of little benefit to the horse itself. Surely, to demand a horse runs at an artifically engineered speed through using a whip is done merely to satisfy human expectations and desires to see how fast horses will go in competition with each other.
A RACE IS STILL A RACE IF A WHIP IS USED OR NOT - The point of horse racing must be that they race against each other over a predetermined course and distance and the horse that passes the finishing post first wins. Whether a whip is used or not in this process is immaterial - without whips, a race could still be run and winners declared.
FOR SAFETY REASONS - Some horses veer or at least run away from a whip,
especially if inexperienced - this means that if for example a jockey is using
his whip in his right hand, the horse will move to the left. This can potentially cause accidents. Also, by running at an unatural speed - flat out - horses can make mistakes, especially when jumping.
WHAT WAS ACCEPTABLE THEN SHOULDN'T BE NOW - We do not use physical persuasions upon humans to control their behvaiour any longer, eg corporal punishment - why should horses be physically persuaded by the use of the whip to give unreasonably beyond their all? In different times, using a whip upon an animal was viewed as acceptable as it could be used on a human being, but this should no longer be the case.

Is this convincing? Clearly the are issues about the instrumental use of animals, but for those who eat meat, wear leather and have pets - can we really criticse here without being hypocrites? What defence is offered by the industry? The Horseracing Regulatory Authority has guidance on the whip:

The HRA will not tolerate abuse of the horse and consider its welfare, and the safety of the rider, to be paramount. The whip should be used for safety, correction and encouragement only and they therefore advise all riders to consider the following good ways of using the whip which are not exhaustive:

Showing the horse the whip and giving it time to respond before hitting it.
Using the whip in the backhand position for a reminder.
Having used the whip, giving the horse a chance to respond before using it again.
Keeping both hands on the reins when using the whip down the shoulder in the backhand position.
Using the whip in rhythm with the horse’s stride and close to its side.
Swinging the whip to keep a horse running straight.

The HRA has asked Stewards of Meetings to consider holding an enquiry into any case where a rider has used his whip in such a way as to cause them concern and publish the following examples of uses of the whip which may be regarded as improper riding:
Hitting horses:to the extent of causing
with the whip arm above shoulder height;
rapidly without regard to their stride, i.e. twice or more in one stride;
with excessive force;
without giving the horse time to respond.

In this view - the whip is of benefit to the horse - it helps it race well and stay safe... But what of the wider moral argument? Many feel that horse-owners love and care deeply for their animals, the business provides employment and pleasure to thousands and further to this - many feel that the horses derive pleasure from racing themselves (and that racing is natural to them)- and that the critics are sentimental hypocrites...

Well - enough from me - what do you think on this topic..


Monday, March 12, 2007

Open debate on religious fundamentalism

The theme of religious fundamentalism will be discussed at a panel event at the University of Gloucestershire (FCH campus) on Thursday 15 March at 7.30pm.
Organised by the University of Gloucestershire chaplaincy, the panel will include Mr Ahmed Bham from Gloucester Muslim Welfare Association and Professor Melissa Raphael, Dr Dee Carter and Dr David Webster from the University’s Department of Humanities.

University chaplain and organiser, Rev Pete Sainsbury said, “What is fundamentalism? How did it play out in religious and public life in the twentieth century and what does it mean now? These are some of the questions we will be discussing and we would like anyone who is interested in this debate to come and join us.”
“There are varieties of fundamentalism and we’ll be discussing the usefulness of the term in understanding religious, as well as secular belief,” added Dr David Webster, course leader in religion, philosophy and ethics.
The panel will invite questions and opinions from the floor. Light refreshments will be served after the event. Everyone is welcome.
For further information, contact Rev Pete Sainsbury on 01242 714593, or email

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ethics in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Note: If you are a student looking at this to help with a paper/essay on the Omelas short story - that is great, we hope something here helps - but be sure to give a reference - and send me an e-mail to let me know if you find the material useful..

Dave W:

Last Semester (in RPE101, Philosophical and Ethical Arguing) we used the Ursula Le Guin short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas to discuss a number of ethical concerns that we were going over in class. Details of this post are at:

In EZ205 (Ethics and Language), we have covered a number of ethical theories, and I wanted to raise some of the related issues with the class. I would like you to look at the story and consider your response in a number of ways….

  • What is the nature of the ethical problem here? How is it linked to the theories we have been looking at in class?
  • What would you do – and why?
  • In what way do we share the dilemma of the people of Omelas in our current economic and political world?
  • Would it be worth the life of one innocent child to free the world from, say, AIDS?
  • Is the contrivance of the story useful - do such exmaples help our moral thinking?
  • In Le Guin’s description of the city of Omelas (which is striking), what do we learn of her view of what the Good life consists of?

Please use the ‘comments’ feature of the blog to respond to these questions (and make any other comments others that occur while reading or reflecting…)
Other RPE students (and indeed anyone else) are welcome to join in here!

See you in class…