Author Archives: Jeremy Stangroom


Sorry about the comment spam that keeps appearing.

I’m deleting it every morning and evening, and we’re using a spam filter that has already caught nearly 2,500,000 spam comments, but it keeps cropping up.

I realize it’s annoying. It annoys me too!

Did Peter Unger just get it wrong?

In his renowned book, Living High and Letting Die, Peter Unger asks us to consider the following scenario:

The Envelope. In your mailbox, there’s something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.

Unger says about this scenario that “almost everyone reacts that your conduct isn’t even wrong at all”. In an endnote, he clarifies that this judgment about how people react is based on having asked “many students, colleagues and friends for their intuitive moral assessments”.

Thing is, I have evidence that he’s just completely wrong about how people tend to react to this scenario. As part of my The Envelope and the Vintage Sedan interactive activity (at the Philosophy Experiments web site), I ask the same question (tweaked so that the amount requested is $200, rather than $100, to allow for the effects of inflation).

So far some 3000 people have completed the activity, and the data is showing that more than 40% think that you would be doing something wrong if you simply ignored the request for money (though it falls to 39% if you control for order effects).

Does this matter? Well, in a couple of senses, yes it does matter. First, it’s a cautionary tale that really you shouldn’t just make things up as you go along. If you’re making a large claim about how people respond to a particular moral scenario, then you’ve got to do better than just asking your mates what they think (this is the case even if it turns out the data I’ve generated is flawed). And second, a large part of Unger’s book is devoted to explaining why our (supposed) intuition that there is nothing wrong in the envelope case is misplaced. His arguments remain relevant, but the rationale for them is undermined if it turns out that a large percentage of people already think there is something wrong.

In another sense, though, it’s not so important: it’s still the case that more people than not think there is no wrongdoing in ignoring the request for a donation; and it’s also true that there is an average difference between how people respond to the envelope case and how they respond to some of the other analogous cases that Unger considers (you can test this for yourself by working through the activity on the Philosophy Experiments web site).

How about a bit of murder?

This is one of my occasional Who Said This? quizzes.

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

So who said it? No Googling, because that would be immoral, especially if you’re a moral error theorist.

Men, Women and Consent

A little while ago I flagged up a new interactive philosophy experiment that deals with issues of consent. It’s now been completed by well over a thousand people, and it’s throwing up some interesting results. In particular, and I can’t say I find it surprising, there seems to be a quite a large difference between how men and women view consent.

(What’s to follow will make more sense if you complete the activity before reading.)

I’ve analysed the responses to two of the scenarios featured in the experiment. The first asks whether you would be doing something wrong if you went ahead with a sexual encounter in the knowledge that your partner would almost certainly come to regret it later. The second asks whether you would be doing something wrong if you went ahead with a sexual encounter in the knowledge that your partner (a) had been drinking (albeit they remain cogent); and (b) would not have consented to the sexual encounter if they hadn’t been drinking.

The data shows that 68% of women, compared to only 58% of men, think it would be wrong to go ahead with the sexual encounter in the Future Regret case. And that 79% of women, compared to only 70% of men, think it would be wrong to go ahead in the Alcohol case.

These results are easily statistically significant, although, as always, I need to point out that the sample is not representative, and that there might be confounding variables in play (e.g., it’s possible that there are systematic differences between the sorts of males and females who have completed this activity – e.g., age).

The Christmas Office Party

God knows why, but I’m still pondering issues of consent (though why what follows is relevant in this respect might not be immediately clear). Here’s another thought experiment.

It’s the evening of the Christmas office party. You know that you’re going to be drinking, and you know that this will inevitably impair your judgement, so you leave your car at home and travel to the venue by public transport. It is relevant here that part of your thinking in doing so is not wanting to risk the possibility that at the end of the evening in a moment of alcoholic induced madness you’ll attempt to drive yourself home.

The evening is a blast, and you drink a lot, which would not be a problem, except your partner shows up at the party, and hands you the keys to your car, saying they’d had to borrow it because their own car wouldn’t start, and that your car is in the parking lot outside. Your partner then rushes off to catch a bus to the airport for an overnight flight.

At this point, you’ve easily drunk enough so that your judgement is significantly impaired. It’s a cold night, you don’t fancy waiting around to catch a cab, plus your car is just outside the front door, so you decide to drive home.

Unfortunately, on your way home, a child steps in front of your car, you’re not able to stop in time (partly because your reactions are impaired by the alcohol you’ve consumed), and you run the child down.

These things are true:

a) You are not blasé about the dangers of drink driving. Your sober self would judge drink driving – regardless of its outcome – to be a significant wrong;

b) If it had been possible for your sober self to make a judgement on behalf of your drunk self then you would never have got into the car;

c) At the point at which you were given your keys, and told your car was just outside, you were already a long way past the point at which your judgement was significant impaired.

The question is – in this situation are you morally culpable for driving under the influence and (therefore) the accident?

Okay, my hunch is that people will say that “Yes, I am culpable”, but… I’m not sure that this judgement will make much sense without invoking some sort of “ideal-type” rational actor who given the same level of intoxication would not have made the decision to drive home.

Over to you. (If you’re not too busy doing Christmas-type things.)

Where Do You Set The Bar For Sexual Consent?

I’ve just completed a new interactive activity for my Philosophy Experiments web site. It deals with some of the issues of consent that I’ve been thinking and blogging about (e.g., here & here) over these last few months.

But You’ll Regret It In the Morning

The data is already showing something interesting – namely, that men and women tend to have a slightly different attitude towards some of the complications surrounding consent. Basically, it seems men are more likely than women to think a sexual encounter is morally permissible in the (arguably) borderline situations the activity focuses upon.

As usual, let me know if you spot any glaring errors, lacunae, etc.

Oh yes, I’ve also written a piece for the Huffington Post that covers similar issues.

Russell vs. Ryle–A Philosophical Spat

As is well-known, Bertrand Russell wasn’t too keen on the “ordinary language philosophy” that was popular among Oxford philosophers in the middle of the twentieth century. This meant that when the sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (pub: 1959), that was highly critical of the approach, Russell was only too happy to write its Preface.

At this time, the editor of Mind was Gilbert Ryle, a leading exponent of the Oxford approach, and he refused to allow Words and Things to be reviewed in the journal on the grounds that it was abusive and could not therefore be regarded as a serious contribution to academic debate.

This annoyed Russell, who promptly penned a letter to The Times, which resulted in a philosophical spat that played out in the newspaper’s letters pages during November 1959.

I reproduce it below.

Read more »

Over A Cliff

I’ve been doing some thinking – not a lot, obviously, because one doesn’t want to overdo that sort of thing – about the nature of informed consent. I’m curious about what people think about the following scenario, which is designed to illuminate one aspect of the phenomenon.

You’re on a cliff, and in front of you is a narrow path, to the right of which there is a sheer drop down to the sea. You’re about to choose whether to traverse this path or instead turn back and head for home, when a syringe drops from the sky injecting you with a drug that has the following effect.

You remain aware of all the reasons why the narrow path spells danger. You are also aware that normally you would be very reluctant to traverse the path. However, as a result of the drug, these things no longer have any significant motivational force – they have lost the capacity to bind your behaviour. Put simply, you know that you would be taking a risk by not turning back, but you don’t care – it doesn’t feel as if it is a big deal (although, if asked, you could explain why it was a big deal and would report that previously you would have felt it to be a big deal – but you wouldn’t care about of these things either ).

The question is whether under these circumstances any choice you make is a fully informed choice? Or, to put this question a slightly different way, if I told you that you had to make the choice under these circumstances, would you feel that you were being deprived of something central to the decision-making process?

My tentative view is that would not be a fully informed choice, even though you still have access to all the relevant information.

As I say, I’d be very curious to know what other people think about this…

Not Suitable For Unusually Stupid Children

Another entry in my occasional bad-tempered Prefaces series. This is from Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays.
Preface to Unpopular Essays

A word as to the title. In the Preface to my Human Knowledge, I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that “philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.” Reviewers took me to task, saying that they found parts of the book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then “unpopular”.

In the Volume 2 of his biography, Ray Monk provides some context for the “peevish” tone struck here. Russell had been disappointed by the reaction to Human Knowledge, which he had hoped would win the respect of academic philosophers as well as appeal to a large general audience. In fact, neither of these things occurred. The book was savaged by his colleagues – Norman Malcolm declared that “Anyone who feels grateful to Russell, as I do, for the splendid work he did in philosophy and logic during the first twenty years of this century, is likely to regard the present book with considerable regret” – and largely ignored by the general public.

Bertrand Russell, LIFE magazine profile, April 1 1940

Just flagging this up, because it’s cool.

Bertrand Russell Rides Out Collegiate Cyclone

It’s a LIFE magazine profile of Bertrand Russell that was published in April 1940, right in the middle of the College of the City of New York scandal. (This is where Russell was described in court as “lecherous, salacious, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, atheistic, irreverent, narrow-minded, bigoted and untruthful”.)