March 10th, 2019

Unfortunately, or fortunately, you will have to settle for a bit of an abbreviated newsletter this week, and likely zilch next week, as I am currently galivanting through The Netherlands and Belgium and would like to avoid getting my laptop stolen in a hostel. But anyway, cue the minimal musings…

When I tell people I’m into philosophy, I am more often met with something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, like, bioethics?” I generally nod and smile, but the reality is that, despite the fact that I am going into medicine, I generally shy away from bioethics and the field of ethics at large. It is not that I don’t care about it, or think that it important. Quite the contrary – providing some guidelines for our conduct and how we treat each other is probably the most gallant pursuit of philosophy. Rather, the field strikes me as slippery; in their work, ethicists often examine a question working within a specific ethical system (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian ethics) or jumping off from a specific set of assumptions. But I often feel as if ethicists lack the tools to evaluate and compare these systems and assumptions.

A great deal of my discomfort with the field of ethics is derived from the unresolved tension between moral relativism (generally the trendy view in non-philosophical intellectual circles since it was formalized by William Sumner in the early 20th century) and belief in the existence of first moral principles. Moral relativism states that moral judgements are only relative to a particular culture and historical period. This position challenges individuals who believe that there are indeed universal moral principles that apply to all humans, either divinely revealed or deduced through reason (as in the case of Kantian ethics).
The influence of these two conflicting positions on our dialogue at large cannot be understated, but it is often not explicitly articulated. Thus, I find that they are often applied inconsistently. For example, one might insist that we cannot make moral judgements about another present-day culture, but will readily make moral judgements on the actions of a historical figure. I, myself, am wholly unresolved on the question. Empirical and historical evidence is strongly in favor of a position of moral relativism – attitudes towards particular moral questions such as polygamy, arranged marriages, suicide unquestionably vary between societies. But I cannot help but feel as if we all agree that the moral things to do is to treat other humans with respect – as both rational beings like ourselves, and complex individuals with their own unique and rich experience of the world. And what follows from this respect are principles of gender equality and protection of the rights of minorities (among others) – principles that often are violated in other societies (and our own) in a way that is worthy of a negative judgement. I’d love to read some of your thoughts on the question during my travels – so please reply with your own musings!

The fluorescent photography of British fashion photographer Miles Aldridge aggressivly confronts themes of popular culture, femininity, and 1950s Americana.

This week I’ve found myself repeatedly indulging in the Emma-Jean Thackray remix of Hector Plimmer’s “Sunshine” (SpotifyYouTube), featuring the luxurious vocals of And is Phi. Who knew a crooner could be so uplifting?!

We all learned the scientific method in middle school — a scientist proposes a hypothesis then tests it. But what do you do when you don’t even know what language to use when crafting your hypothesis? Call in some philosophers of course!

Enjoy this outstanding article from Quanta magazine on the showdown between neuroscientists and philosophers over competing theories of consciousness.

For those suspicious of the conscious character of our pets, I encourage you to look at my cousin-in-law Rob Wayne’s series of photographs of his pet pooch Doug — a window into inner world of an especially expressive pup.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

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