Philosophers Take on the World

Edited by David Edmonds, OUP, £12.99

Applied ethics is sometimes dismissed as the poor relation of more esoteric and supposedly loftier philosophical pursuits. The journeymen tackle quotidian issues while the master craftsmen focus on the deep stuff. This is a very silly perspective given why philosophy was invented in the first place: to help us understand and live the good life. It also overlooks the fact that applied ethics can be a decidedly rigorous and sophisticated endeavour, though this provokes a different set of problems.

When philosophy deals with real-life dilemmas, the general public should be clamouring for the results, but the field is, as David Edmonds admits, brimful of “abstruse and technical language”. This often can’t be helped, given that a complex academic discipline requires its argot, but it can easily become off-putting for the uninitiated.

All hail, then, a venture from the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford. The centre has been running a daily blog which invites professional philosophers to comment on issues raised by topical news stories. High intellectual standards are maintained but the blog, according to Edmonds, is “the antithesis of a peer-reviewed journal”. This collection brings together some of the best posts and they make for fascinating reading.

Many delicate and complex topics make appearances. What are the ethical implications if paedophilia is seen as a biologically determined disposition? How should a liberal society deal with illiberal folk who want to foster children? What language should we use to discuss suicide bombers? Familiar themes around issues of medical ethics, abortion and looted art treasures sit next to seemingly quirky topics that actually open up unexpectedly rewarding avenues of inquiry: musings on ice-cream made from human milk or the pros and cons of hating rival sports teams.

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