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.

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