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News: March/April 2012

Cetaceans “Should Have Rights” • Philosophers Think About Charity • Movies for Teaching Philosophy • Stubborn Brains • New journal LEAPs into existence • John Hick — News reports by Sue Roberts

Cetaceans “Should Have Rights”

At the American Association for Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver (16th-20th February) a group of scientists and philosophers presented papers to support a recent ‘Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins’. Lori Marino of Emory University reviewed the extensive scientific evidence for complex intelligence and self-awareness among dolphins, porpoises and whales. Thomas White, an ethicist from Loyola Marymount University, argued that cetaceans have distinctive cultures, societies and personalities, and so should be considered as ‘non-human persons’.

Philosophers Think About Charity

Several groups have sprung up recently promoting new approaches to altruism. These organisations mainly originated in the efforts of graduate students at Oxford University and have been inspired by the writings of moral philosophers such as Peter Singer. The first and largest is called Giving What We Can; its website at givingwhatwecan.org describes its key aim as eliminating poverty in the developing world. Members take a pledge to give at least 10% of their incomes to the most cost-effective charities. The group points out that some charities are much more efficient than others; a core aim of the group is to research which make the most effective use of donations and recommend those charities to its members. It claims that “Over their lifetime, a typical member might be able to cure 5,000 cases of tuberculosis (saving 200 lives), save 35,000 years worth of healthy life, or produce 35,000 years of additional school attendance. These amazing tasks can be achieved without any need to change jobs, or move to developing countries. Most people in the developed world could achieve these goals simply by foregoing a few luxuries.”

A parallel group called 80,000 Hours (www.80000hours.org), created in November, takes a different but complimentary approach, in part based on research done by ethicist Will Crouch. It offers research and advice on choosing a ‘high impact ethical career’ which will maximise the amount of practical good that individuals can do in the world over the course of their entire working lives. Both groups have close links with the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and both groups are attempting to spread their ideas and recruit new members worldwide via their websites. Meanwhile a Positive Ethics Working Group has been established, based at Balliol College, with meetings open to all, which aims to bring together ethicists, economists, behavioural psychologists and experts in development studies, to discuss all these issues.

Movies for Teaching Philosophy

In February, Oxford University Press launched two DVDs each containing three films aimed at sixth form philosophy students. One explains three ethical theories (Utilitarianism; Kantian Ethics; Virtue Ethics), the other examines three arguments for the existence of God (the Ontological, Cosmological and Teleological Arguments, since you ask). A Level Philosophy & Ethics Through Film is the brainchild of Luke Pollard, who is also the main presenter. Luke published his first article in Philosophy Now while he himself was studying Philosophy A Level; he now teaches A Level Philosophy and Ethics at Bryanston School in Dorset. The movies feature engaging, clear explanations, stories, interviews, and a touch of humour. (More info: www.oxfordsecondary.co.uk)

Stubborn Brains

A study by researchers at New York University, University College London, and Aarhus University shows that an individual’s propensity to conform to social pressures is linked to the amount of grey matter in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Twenty eight people were tested to see whether their preferences for certain songs were altered after hearing music critics’ opinions of the songs. Professor Chris Frith says “Our results show that social conformation is, at least partly, hard-wired in the structure of brain.”

New journal LEAPs into existence

Law, Ethics and Philosophy (LEAP) is a new peer-reviewed international journal devoted to new work in ethics, legal theory, and social and political philosophy. Its editors José Luis Martí, of Pompeu Fabra University and Hugo Seleme of National University of Córdoba, Argentina, hope to publish not only theoretical studies but also work relating to real issues in public life. The journal will also encourage dialogue between the English-speaking and non-English-speaking parts of the world.

John Hick

Professor John Hick died at the age of ninety on 9th February. He was one of the most influential philosophers of religion of our time and the author of almost thirty books, several of which were bestsellers. Hick invented eschatological verification – the idea that certain ultimate questions cannot be settled until the end of time. For instance, the claim that “God exists” might conceivably be verified one day, but the opposing claim that “there is no God” could only be known to be true at the very end of history – until then, we just can’t know what might turn up in the future. Therefore it is necessary to accept a plurality of opinions.

Hick taught at Birmingham, Princeton and Claremont universities. In the field of theology he had moved by the 1970s to a liberal outlook which questioned the orthodox understanding of the divinity of Christ. Eventually, by the mid-1980s he had come to regard Christianity as simply one among the world’s major religions, with no exclusive claim on the truth. He was, in fact, charged with heresy twice by the Presbyterian Church, of which he was once a minister. From the 1980s he was regarded as a world authority on interfaith relations.

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