Saturday, 8 January 2011

Review of A211 Philosophy and the Human Condition Part 1

As some people seem to be in a reflective mood (Well Nilo anyway) I thought as I'm still between courses I would finally post some initial thoughts on A211. Philosophy and the Human Condition. This year is the last time the OU will be presenting this course and in October a New course will begin. A211 tries to achieve two quite separate aims one is an introduction to critical thinking namely learning how to follow a persons argument and if need be translate it in to premise conclusion  form, this is a precursor to formal logic and can be quite useful in teasing out hidden assumptions. The course material covered 6 different areas and whilst some were what I would expect in an introduction to philosophy I have to say others were really quite idiosyncratic choices.  

The units were as follows

Unit 1 Arguments for Freedom. This unit looks at the concept of Freedom starting with an account of Isaiah Berlin's distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom to pursue whatever one wants without restriction whereas positive freedom is the claim that we often make bad choices and these restrict us from fulfilling our full potential. Positive freedom is fine, if it's just us becoming aware of how the choices we make (eg watching telly instead of doing a TMA ) interfere with our long term goals. However often in the hands of the state it can become coercive people such as Rousseau or the Catholic church claim to know what is the general good and seek to impose this on other people who don't share their aims. After a brief discussion of Lockes essay on tolerance the core of the unit was devoted to a discussion of Mill's harm principle which is essentially the idea that people should be free to do say or believe whatever they want provided it doesn't cause physical harm to others. To my mind (despite the recent railings of the Pope against liberal secularism) this is a key value of liberal secularism. Liberalism It is not a collapse into moral relativism as religious critics seem to think, For example to take an example which seems to cause liberals much agonising. Many cultural practices such as female circumcison, discrimimation against women, ethnic minorities and people of different sexual orientation are justified in the name of cultural tradition. However these are all clear violations of the Harm principle, it is not cultural imperialism to criticise these as some people would claim but a sense of fighting against unjust and discriminatory practices. When the Pope criticises liberal secularists for not having values he is really saying that he wants his institution to carry out his discriminatory practices free from legitimate criticism. When liberals criticise the Pope's condemnation of the use of condoms this is done as a genuine concern for the harm that turning women into essentially breeding machines in the third world has done to both the women's lives and the dangers of overpopulation. Thus it is not that liberals have no values but there is a real clash of values.

Another key point of Mill is that offence is no harm. If I don't like a play or book because it criticises or mocks my beliefs I have no right to force it to be closed or shut down or cause violence in the streets . I do have a right to criticise it if I don't like it by writing letters to the press, making a peaceful protest etc. On this basis the increasingly successful campaigns to ban certain plays or books such as the Jerry Springer show, the burning of the Satanic verses and the shutting down of a play for fear of mob violence criticising the Seikhs in Birmingham a few years ago has no justification. I'm afraid I have no sympathy with the ease at which some religious fundamentalists be they Christian, Muslim. Hindu or otherwise take offence at certain publications. 

I feel that every politician, religious leader and so forth should take on board the insights of Mill here. I found this unit quite thought provoking and relevant to today. Mill's Harm principle seems to me to be an almost universal ethical principle enabling people of different beliefs and life styles to live with each other and the ability to take on board legitimate criticism and toleration of different lifestyles provided no physical harm to other people is caused seems to me to be a necessary part of growing up.

I'll just briefly mention the two units which I didn't find all that inspiring namely the one on animal rights and the one on environmental ethics. I'll talk about the other units in later posts.     

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