British law and assisted suicide.

This case reported in The Guardian on Friday is very worrying. I almost want to put it down to bad reporting and say some salient facts must have been omitted, because as things stand, the law and court come across as absurd.

To sum up: a man bought his drunken ‘friend’ petrol in the knowledge that he intended to use it to burn himself alive. He was subsequently convicted for assisted suicide, and has been sentenced to twelve years in jail. The judge complains in his statement about a clear lack of compassion in the choice to buy and deliver the petrol.

The problem here is pretty obvious. We don’t generally consider it the role of the state to enforce the duty to be a good friend. If I treat you badly in spite of a long-standing bond between us, that may make me a bad person. But short of physically assaulting you or something similarly clear-cut, the police don’t knock on my door just because I act like a dick. Someone can’t call 999 and have me fined if I stand you up when we’re supposed to meet for coffee.

Okay, you might think, but the act in question here was evidently far graver than something trivial like missing a drink. This ‘friend’ facilitated attempted suicide.

Well, indeed, but we’ve got to remember that irrespective of a longstanding social norm against the acceptability of this act, it is, in law, perfectly legal, and presumably not only for practical reasons. We do tend to think that under rights to self-determination and so on, if someone wishes to make such choices then they are to be left alone, however ill-advised those choices may seem.

So what this boils down to is the law prosecuting someone for being a bad friend that facilitated the performance of a perfectly legal act. Insofar as the law is as indifferent to someone’s decision to burn themselves as they are to my decision to eat kale in the morning, why doesn’t it ignore the petrol-deliverer in the same way it doesn’t impede my Ocado delivery van?

Perhaps this just strikes at foolishness inherent in the law against assisted suicide. Even if you think that there is some place for such a law, you could and should still worry about ‘assistance’ being read so loosely here that we’re no longer talking about feeding pills to people (or analogously in this case, ourselves pouring the petrol and lighting the flame). Now, assistance means just knowingly buying the tools which the person then uses entirely independently. So if I claimed to be suicidal and simply ask you to buy me a rope, British law is now saying you could be setting yourself up for a decade in jail. And again, this in spite of the fact that my use of the rope to hang myself would be legal.

Are there any other examples of laws which forbid us from facilitating further legal acts, other than on this one issue, where all coherency and common sense seems to evaporate?

A Springsteen bucket list.

I’ve been thinking about which songs are left for me to experience live before Bruce becomes too old and packs up for good (quite a while yet, I trust). After twelve concerts (ten in little over a year), I’ve ticked off far more rarities than most. In the six gigs this summer I think I worked out I heard over ninety different songs performed. I’ve heard DarknessBorn in the USA and Born to Run all the way through, early gems like Lost in the Flood and Wild Billy, plenty from Tracks like Cynthia, TV Movie and Roulette after that mad night in Cardiff, and River rarities like I’m A Rocker and Ramrod for the same reason. And Man at the Top, Save My Love and Reason to Believe. I’ve also seen everyone from Tom Morello and Paul McCartney to John Fogerty and Eric Burdon join him on stage.

Still, much greed remains. I’m still to even hear the guy’s greatest song (listed last here), and some of my very favourites are yet to make a spontaneous appearance. I managed to trim things down to a special seven. Here’s hoping for a return next summer.

Blinded by the Light.

I’m only interested in hearing this acoustic, as heard above. Something about the quietness really brought out the playful absurdity of the lyrics.

Crush On You.

I made signs this summer for this quick throw-away, but no luck. “You’re a walking, talking reason to live” is a really lovely, under-looked romantic line.

Fade Away.

Just one other River request, and quite a contrast with the last one. A real soul-crusher.

Better Days.

Have a couple of verses ever better captured the energising thrill of the rediscovery of romantic love?

Kitty’s Back.

Kitty is very rarely back, but when she is she must steal the fucking show.

Ain’t Good Enough For You.

Yeah, like hell this is an outtake. It’s one of those classic bittersweet Springsteen paradoxes, where the joyful tempo just utterly jars with the self-flagellation inherent in the lyrics. I hope I hear it at a time when I can laugh it off. It looks like ecstasy for the crowd.

New York City Serenade.

Any true fan’s Holy Grail. Hear this live and I would die happy, drowning in my own tears.

Various matters.

Two days before term starts is an odd time to feel the urge to (at least briefly) blog again, but I thought it was worth penning some updates on various things, so here goes nothing. Take this as a quickly and loosely written recent academic and activist diary.

1 – My summer essays on the problem of evil and the paradox of tragedy are all done. They’re online here and here, but I’m not sure if I’m endorsing them yet. It’s immensely difficult to judge, after spending so long dwelling on such specific problems, whether what you argued is any good. My position on and solution for the paradox inherent in our enjoyment of tragic artworks feels especially banal and obvious to me by now. I guess it’s over to others to decide whether my claim that it’s all about psychological insight is plausible and useful. The philosophy of religion essay is far more controversial and daring, perhaps foolishly so. I basically conclude that theists are logically compelled to deny the existence of evil, believe there is sufficient reason for tsunamis, rape and so on, and be rationally glad for their existence accordingly. But again, I did think the arguments for that are clearly there. To deny it would be to somehow claim an all-loving and powerful being exists who allows events to obtain for which there are no good reason. The theist has insufferably big philosophical bullets to bite either way.

2 – Since I will have met by distribution requirements by Christmas, my last essay can be a bit more daring and defy the ordinary categories. They can allocate it wherever they see fit once it’s done. I intend on making full use of this situation by – gasp – writing on romantic love. I think it speaks volumes about philosophy that something so integral to the lives and aspirations of most people tends to be totally sidelined in studies of ethics. So re-tilting the balance there slightly and exploring an under-studied sphere of value seems especially worthwhile. There’s a whole host of questions to be considered here. Some of the key things I’m keen to explore:

  • Is the value of romantic love, insofar as people tend to understand it as seeking some sort of union with the interests and desires of another, in tension with the value of individual autonomy that tends to underpin liberalism?
  • What do people mean when they say they want to be loved not for any particular reasons, but just because of the fact that they are who they are?
  • What do people even mean when they talk of romantic love!
  • What distinguishes romantic love from parental or familial love?
  • What distinguishes it from mere friendship?
  • If you love someone because they have certain properties, what happens when you meet someone who better instantiates those properties? Are you rationally committed to loving them more?
  • Given love is understood as a union, how are we to accommodate the thought that it can also be a feeling that isn’t reciprocated?
  • Can we love animals?
  • Insofar as romantic love causes one to have a warped perspective on the world – we become blind to another person’s flaws – do we not have an epistemic duty to avoid such feelings, so we can judge the world more objectively?
  • Is romantic love necessarily exclusive, or at  least very limited?

It’s amazing that I haven’t touched on any of these fascinating and important questions after four whole years of studying philosophy. I’m really excited to just plough through my historical Hume supervision essays this term and get on with this final paper as soon as possible.

3 – I met my thesis supervisor today to discuss what direction I’ll be taking things in next year. Having decided last term on the title ‘Liberalism and Education’, he suggested there were two routes I could go down. I could either write a modern analytical paper on the various technical strands of modern liberalism, and see which ones can be best reconciled with my intuitions about how things like state neutrality should colour the content of the national curriculum. Or, I could delve into the great historical thinkers and texts and bring their neglected insights to bear on modern debates. Obviously, it’s the latter possibility that has finally got me excited about studying again. It’s practically a licence to spend my final six months as a student just reading the likes of Dewey, Aristotle and my beloved Rousseau (and finally, Emile!), before explaining what lessons we can and should learn about how our conception of education should be framed accordingly. Awesome.

4 – Moving on to activist rather than academic matters, I’ve met with the guys running Oxford Students for Animals this week and helped out on their stall at the Freshers Fair. Plans for the year are taking shape. I should be sending off for leafleting resources from Animal Aid, Compassion in World Farming and so on soon with an eye to regularly campaigning on Cornmarket Street on weekends. The campaign to increase vegetarian and vegan options in college dining halls will continue. I’m also keen to find out information about the meat suppliers of various restaurants in Oxford, so rather than only listing vegan and vegetarian-friendly places on OSFA’s website, ethical meat offerings could be listed, and those using clearly factory-farmed products could also be flagged. Since some people involved are likely to be strict vegetarians who think no meat-eating is permissible, though, the ‘ethical meat’ listings might be a difficult sell. I’ve also started to make contact with local Christians who seem keen to help draft letters to churches requesting transparency about their meat suppliers, and demanding an end to their complicity in factory farming if it exists as expected.

5 – I may have mentioned previously that I wrote a briefing paper for Giving What We Can last month on the problem of micronutrient bioavailability, which may mean that their recently endorsed charity Project Healthy Children - which mass-fortifies food with basic vitamins and minerals – is sadly nowhere near as effective as was previously thought. It looks like my worries will be aired on the GWWC blog very shortly – I’ll link to it once that’s up. The research paper is here, in the mean time.

6 – With little need of persuasion, Magdalen Film Society is now in principle on board with donating profits at the end of the year to the Against Malaria Foundation - GiveWell and GWWC’s #1 rated charity. This is wonderful news, and by far the best thing I’ll be responsible for after four years on the committee there.

7 – I’ve got a 9am start for a six hour day at the Careers Service tomorrow, learning tedious information about navigating the world of job applications. My CV is taking shape as I aim to shoot for a few big media opportunities, but more likely settle for more important and secure non-profit work. If anyone has comments on how it reads and looks, please get in touch. Any and all criticism will be much appreciated.

That’s that. I’ll end with some Springsteen. I finally got around last week to downloading a bootleg of the Cardiff gig from back in July. This one has practically been on repeat on my iPod ever since:

The first time I heard it – then knowing nothing about Eric Burdon and the Animals, and thinking when the guy walked on stage that it was some sort of joke – I remember thinking that “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is basically the bottom line of every big song Bruce has ever written, from Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win”) to Dancing in the Dark (“There’s something happening somewhere”) and more obvious candidates like Born to Run and Land of Hope and Dreams. It was reassuring, then, to find Bruce admitting as much in his SXSW keynote speech, whilst also offering quite a tribute to what their music meant and still means to him. I retrospectively feel so, so privileged to have witnessed this one.

Night, all.

Swiss chard, leek and lentil stew.

A busy week accounts for little posting recently, but I wanted to get this dish up that I’ve been tweaking for a while now. It’s certainly comfort food full of savoury flavours and soft textures, but the dill, orange zest and lemon juice help to freshen it up. You can save some time, money and effort by using stock cubes if you wish, but with due disapproval from yours truly. Serves two.

For the vegetable stock (include four or more of):

1 carrot.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 garlic clove, peeled.

1 onion, peeled.

A handful of parsley, thyme and dill.

1 bay leaf.

Half a celery stalk.

500ml water.

For the stew:

500ml vegetable stock.

1 leek, finely chopped.

100g Swiss chard, roughly shredded.

100g puy lentils.

100g green lentils.

15g dill, finely chopped.

15g parsley, finely chopped.

Zest of one orange.

1 tbsp lemon juice.

1 tbsp olive oil.

Salt and pepper.

First, prepare the vegetable stock. Place the vegetables and herbs in a saucepan, add the water and bring to the boil. Simmer for thirty minutes and then discard the ingredients.

When the stock is ten minutes from finishing, heat the olive oil in a saucepan and fry the leeks for the remaining time. Add the chard, lentils and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for another twenty five minutes.

Drain any remaining stock. Now add the orange zest, lemon juice, dill and parsley.  Stir and season to taste.

Every chef is an activist.

I love that line from Dan Barber in this El Pais article about sustainability movements. It’s more true than most will appreciate. As Michael Pollan likes to put it, in the world of food politics we get to vote three times a day: each time we eat, we send a signal about our preferences, and convey either a disregard for health – our own and the environment’s – or due concern for it. And there’s no better way to take control of one’s diet and the world around you than to stop surrendering the work of cooking to the supermarkets by buying their hyper-processed meals, and instead doing the assembly of natural ingredients ourselves. I truly believe our civic duties in this realm are greater than they’ll ever be in the ballot box.

Shannon’s success.

Some readers may remember my support for Damien Shannon’s case against Oxford earlier in the year. Damien emailed me late last week to bring to my attention the following change on Oxford’s website:

When you complete your Financial Declaration, you will be asked to:

  • Show that you have sufficient funding to cover the University and College fees for Year 1 of your course, by providing financial evidence such as a letter from your scholarship sponsor or your bank
  • Give your assurance that you are able and willing to meet all University and College fees beyond Year 1, if the duration of your course is longer than a year (no financial evidence is required)
  • Give your assurance that you are able and willing to meet your living costs for the duration of your course (no financial evidence is required)

This is a huge retreat and success. It unfortunately comes too late for Damien, whose financial situation has changed such that he can no longer take up his renewed offer of a place. But he Damien can be immensely proud of the good he has done on behalf of all future less privileged applicants. No longer will people have to prove they have the foolishly high figure of £13,000 a year to live on, and the cash on hand from day one to fund the entirety of their forthcoming course. Damien writes:

Under the old system a PhD applicant would have had to prove prior access to at least £55,000 of liquid capital. As of tomorrow that figure will reduce to first year fees (circa. £6,000). Huge difference. I can only imagine this will do a great deal to facilitate access.

Indeed, and the University’s application process will be much fairer for it.

[Correction: Damien wrote to confirm he could in fact now take his place, given the latest changes.]

Don’t mention meat, continued.

Okay, let’s add a little to that recent post. I forget a friend brought to my attention the other day this good news from Germany. The Green party there has called for Meat Free Mondays in canteens across the country. It isn’t clear, but this indicates it would apply to public sector institutions:

The policy has already been tested in several cities. In the north-western German city of Bremen, office, school and kindergarten canteens have already introduced a weekly meat-free day. The city’s Social-Democrat mayor said it represented a chance for each person to “make a personal contribution to environmental protection.”

Even more promising, though suspiciously optimistic, are these poll results out of the country: 45% support a “Veggie Day”. 36% believe the government should promote vegetarian diets.