What is existential freedom?

Earlier this year, historian Mary Beard got involved in a Twitter spat after she suggested that it was not all that shocking that Oxfam workers had used prostitutes, while on a disaster relief mission in Haiti. She noted that people often behave badly in extreme situations and suggested that it might be a mistake to judge them too harshly. There was a predictable outraged backlash. Writing about the controversy afterwards, Beard reflected that people often have unrealistically high moral standards, even of themselves. She gave the example of a discussion she’d had with a group of students, about Nazi-occupied France. She’d asked what they thought they would have done in those circumstances. “They all said they would have joined the Resistance,” she recalled, before noting, “The truth is to judge by any statistics you can get that most of them would have been collaborators or keeping their heads down.”

It’s a salutary point, and I don’t dispute it, but, at the same time, there would have to be something seriously wrong with anyone who answered the question by saying, “Well, statistically speaking, I’d probably have helped the Nazis.” Continue reading “What is existential freedom?”

Love your enemies… but don’t let them eat you

Sam Harris on the science of good and evil, Intelligence Squared, London, 11 April 2011

American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is on a mission to break down the longstanding philosophical distinction between facts and values. Continue reading “Love your enemies… but don’t let them eat you”

The trouble with being human these days

In Identity, a short book based on an email exchange between Zygmunt Bauman and Italian journalist Benedetto Vecchi, the sociologist discusses the question of identity in the context of what he calls ‘liquid modernity’. Bauman’s thesis, set out in his book of that name (2000), is that we have moved from a solid to a fluid phase of modernity, in which nothing keeps its shape, and social forms are constantly changing at great speed, radically transforming the experience of being human.

Continue reading “The trouble with being human these days”