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Modern Times

by Rick Lewis

With this issue, we are celebrating Philosophy Now’s 30th birthday. Sometimes 1991 seems like an earlier age of the world. Recently the young whippersnapper who does most of the editorial work these days, Grant Bartley I think he’s called, disturbed my afternoon nap with the idea that we should move with the times and produce an issue focusing on what he called Modern Moral Problems. “Humbug, young man,” I shouted, waving my cane at him, “Philosophy is timeless and so are the problems with which it deals.” Yet maybe he had a point.

When discussing practical ethics there are several routes that philosophers tend to take. The most notorious is to examine thought experiments – often far fetched ones – to expose the underlying features of ethical systems. One famous example is Philippa Foot’s thought experiment about a runaway tram or trolley hurtling towards a group of track workers, who could be saved by throwing a fat passerby onto the track. One by Judith Jarvis Thomson asks us to imagine a famous violinist being kept alive for nine months by umbilical cords from an unwilling kidnap victim. I have a soft spot for such examples, and not merely for their entertainment value. Nobody ever claims that they are terribly realistic, but that isn’t the point; the point is to design your thought experiment to explore the limits of ethical theories which can then be applied back to more everyday cases, and to our own lives.

Another approach is to explore the kinds of ethical problems and dilemmas one might actually encounter in real life. There are plenty of problems one bumps up against in the course of any life; problems of relationships with other people, problems of honesty with money, problems of conflicting duties and conflicting priorities. Some of them can be talked out and made clearer. There are also ethical problems on a societal level; these vary from one society to another and also – I admit it – they change with time. Japan was once very interested in complex ethical problems relating to honour. Mid 19th century America was torn apart by disagreements about slavery. Medieval Europe’s ethical debates often revolved around interpretations of Christian theology. And today the public is excited by a whole range of moral problems which seem particular to our present century – though the taste for denouncing heretics seems as strong as ever.

Sometimes long-standing ethical disputes are transformed by the development of new technologies. In this issue, JY Lee and Andrea Bidoli consider whether this might happen to the debate around abortion. Other modern moral problems result from the ever-changing values and priorities of people in a frenetically-paced global civilisation. (If you are woke, please read that last sentence as “…result from a clearer understanding of moral reality and of the sins of past generations.”). There are so many modern moral problems that we couldn’t possibly hope to solve more than a handful of them here – so we’ll leave all the others as an exercise for the reader.

Each of our contributors applies some critical thinking and insights from the long history of philosophy. The article on racism suggests countering it using the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. Another article examines the best way to understand social protest movements, using Axel Honneth’s ‘recognition theory’. The one on election meddling applies just war theory, which is one of medieval philosophy’s longer-lasting legacies. The essay on fat shaming is timely for several different reasons. Firstly, it has to do with a form of prejudice, so it might cast light on other forms of prejudice too. Secondly, there is more of it around, as the disastrous practices of the food industry over the last few decades have led to a steady increase in the girth of the average citizen, while the aesthetic ideas of an earlier age still linger. Thirdly, it has to do with self-definition and respect, which both seem to be threads common to many modern moral problems. For instance, they are at the heart of contemporary debates about gender and sexuality.

These questions about politics and life and values and identity, which stir such strong passions, are being thrashed out every day online, and the occasional nastiness and intolerance of social media is notorious. This brings us to an older philosophical question, namely the status and extent of free speech. What should people be allowed to say? How far should they be allowed to go? Nearly everyone says “I’m in favour of free speech BUT…” They usually have big buts. Free speech is increasingly under pressure, but that’s all I’m allowed to tell you. If you insist on debating contentious matters all I can recommend is to be kind and respectful as well as clever. That way they’ll assume you’re a tourist and leave you alone.

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