Thursday, July 3, 2008

Life on the Scales - Philosophy Bites podcast review

Philosophy Bites is a podcast that delivers concise weekly conversations on a philosophical topic. All this happens in a balance act between the levels of academic philosophy and the target of wrapping up the academic discourse in ten, fifteen minutes and have a product that is accessible to a relatively wide public. Generally the podcast succeeds in doing that and it makes it a treasure trove from which you can pick the subject that appeals to you and get boosted with insight, perspectives and level of your starting point.

I am very interested in controversies that pit our intuitions and rationality, our various values and principles against each other in real dilemmas. One such hot potato is the discussion around stem cell research and more general discussions on bio-technology and ethics. All this is about life and drags us into the position we have to weigh lives or consider how this can be done (if it can be done at all and if it is ethical to even engage in such questions). Hence, the last issue of Philosophy Bites drew my immediate attention: John Broome on weighing lives. (John Broome is a philosophy professor at Oxford, and wrote a book with on weighing lives.)

Broome handles the uncertainties involved in the issue with decision theory. And this allows for rationalizing and while not always people take their decisions this way. During the podcast I could forget my qualms about raising the question at all - intuitively I have a feeling the question of the weight of life is vicious to begin with. The examples are of practical nature, both individually as well as on the level of policy. Broome also adds to the decision theory; he introduces fairness and goodness. He also understand the horror I feel around this question, but by emphasizing that decisions must be made and any old tool that helps should be appreciated. It remains a balancing act with contradicting principles after all - also with what Broome contributes.

More Philosophy Bites:
David Hume,
Several issues of Philosophy Bites,
Free rider problem,
Humanism,
Is war innate?

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