Is morality relative?

This article was written by Dr Michael Garnett, from Birkbeck’s Department of Philosophy. The article is taken from the introduction to a study guide on moral relativism, written by Dr Garnett and Professor Lillehammer, ahead of the conference and essay competition on the question ‘Is morality relative?’, which will take place on 28 June 2017.

platoI used to be a moral relativist—I used to think that moral judgements could be true or false only relative to a culture. Not just that: I used to think that moral relativism was obviously true. I struggled to understand how anyone could not be a moral relativist. Denying moral relativism, I thought, meant thinking that you were in possession of the one, true, universal, objective morality—and who could be so arrogant as to think they had that? I mean, maybe if you were religious you might think you had that. But even then, there are many different religions, and religious teachings require interpretation; and so who could be so arrogant as to think that they, out of everyone in the world, had hit on the one true interpretation of the one true religion?

My mother is a social anthropologist, someone whose job it is to study different cultures, and growing up I was keenly aware of the huge differences in moral ideas and outlooks between different human societies. As a kid I’d sit through dinner parties listening to my mum and her anthropology friends swapping stories about the distant peoples with whom they’d lived: the things they’d had to eat (live grasshoppers and stewed goat’s placenta were particular standouts), the different kinds of family structures they’d been welcomed into, and the different ideas about ethics and the cosmos that they’d learned about. For as long as I can remember, then, I’ve known that the ideas I happen to have about things like property, marriage, suicide, homicide, incest, cannibalism, the natural world, and so on, are mostly just local to me and to my little corner of the world.

So how could I not have been a relativist? Perhaps I could have believed in a universal, objective morality if I’d been ignorant of the extent of these cultural differences—if I’d somehow thought that everyone in the world shared more or less the same moral ideas as me and the other white, middle-class Londoners in my neighbourhood. But I wasn’t ignorant: I had a front row seat at the theatre of human cultural diversity. So to believe in a single true morality I would have had to believe, arrogantly, that somehow I (along with the rest of my ‘tribe’) had some special access to the moral truth, a special access denied to everyone else on the face of the planet. What could possibly justify this? After all, it’s simply an accident of birth that I grew up to have the moral ideas that I have. Had I instead grown up on a Fijian island, or deep in the Amazon basin, or in rural China, I would have had an utterly different moral outlook. Clearly, I had no better claim to the moral truth than anyone else. And that’s why I thought moral relativism was obviously true.

But I’m not a moral relativist anymore. So what happened? What happened is I studied philosophy. Philosophy showed me that I was muddled about what exactly did and didn’t follow from these facts about cultural diversity and disagreement, and it helped me to see everything more clearly. I eventually came to understand that, of the various things I thought about this topic, some of them were correct, but weren’t moral relativism; and some of them were moral relativism, but weren’t correct.

It took me a few years to get this all straightened out in my head. I’ve written a short Study Guide to pass some of this on; this is the essay that I wish I’d been able to read after sitting through those anthropology dinners, my head spinning vertiginously at exotic tales of cultural difference. You can download it here. And at our conference on 28 June, some of my esteemed colleagues will share their own perspectives on the topic of relativism. We very much hope to see you there.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

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On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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Maps, Wolves and Riots: All in a day’s work on a Birkbeck Field Weekend

This post was contributed by Dr Sue Brooks, Dr Rosie Cox, Dr Becky Briant, Dr Andrea Ballatore and Dr Kezia Barker from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The Cambridge Backs in Autumn (photo S Brooks)

The Cambridge Backs in Autumn (photo S Brooks)

On a glorious autumn weekend large tracts of East Anglia were dotted with roving groups of undergraduates from the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. New students had been with us for just three weeks when they were treated to an extravaganza of delights, taking in the stunning wildlife at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, exploring the market city of Ely and ending up in the fast-paced urban landscape of Cambridge. The new students were able to apply their learning from lectures and readings and test the lecturers’ knowledge of their outdoor environments as they developed new skills in field studies and spatial analysis.

Learning about an ancient landscape (photo A Ballatore)

Learning about an ancient landscape (photo A Ballatore)

Wicken Fen has some of the best preserved wetlands in the whole of Europe, allowing people to see at first-hand what the ancient Fenlands looked like before they were drained for agriculture. Through a series of probing questions the students kept the reserve’s ranger, Maggie Downes, on her toes as she outlined the National Trust’s future vision for Wicken Fen, including the use of Highland cattle and Konik ponies as ecosystem engineers in an exciting rewilding experiment. Students were also reassured that rewilding advocates do not plan to reintroduce wolves in Cambridgeshire. The day ended in Ely, with a look around the ancient cathedral and some socialising in the evening.

Inside Ely Cathedral (photo A Ballatore)

Inside Ely Cathedral (photo A Ballatore)

The following day, supported by modern digital media and GPS sensors, students collected data about the vegetation and wheelchair accessibility of diverse areas of Cambridge. The data was then used for the production of maps. The social interactions were lively, to say the least, and the results of the photography competition have yet to be announced!

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Vegetation mapping along St Barnabas Road, Cambridge

Vegetation mapping along St Barnabas Road, Cambridge

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Wheelchair accessibility mapping (accessibility level represented as green, yellow, and red)

Wheelchair accessibility mapping (accessibility level represented as green, yellow, and red)

Exploring accessibility in urban spaces in Cambridge (photo B Briant)

Exploring accessibility in urban spaces in Cambridge (photo B Briant) 

Meanwhile Geography and Environmental Management students entering the final year of their BSc programmes were out and about exploring the Fenlands of East Anglia. Stepping out into the wider Fens that exist today, students were able to engage with debates about landuse conflict, water management, water abstraction, fisheries and the threat of accelerated sea level rise on vast areas of grade A agricultural land lying at or below sea level. A highlight of the day was a chance encounter of the author Rob Reed, who recounted in graphic detail the Littleport Riots of 1816 which he had recently been researching for his book Rebels with a Cause, published this year.

The Denver Complex (left) and cut-off channel (photo S Brooks)

The Denver Complex (left) and cut-off channel (photo S Brooks)

Finishing at the Denver complex, where tidal water from the sea meets the river outflow from land, really focused minds on issues associated with management of the river Great Ouse and the Ouse Washes, set within the fourth largest river catchment in the UK. Our coach driver, Dee, brought us all safely home in her inimitable way with lots of humour and good fun. Students were happy and notched up many useful skills to take them through their degree and beyond.

The Unmanaged River Great Ouse upstream of Earith Sluice and Hermitage Lock (photo S Brooks)

The Unmanaged River Great Ouse upstream of Earith Sluice and Hermitage Lock (photo S Brooks)

What our students said:

“What I would say about the Fenland trip is that it was fascinating to learn about a part of the country I have never been to (and maybe never will again?!). Friends and family I’ve spoken to have only ever, at best, passed through it, but when I’ve explained to them how for hundreds of years we’ve massively modified the landscape there to reclaim it from the water, they have wanted to hear more about the feats of engineering used” Lisa Howard, BSc Geography

 

“As per usual this was a great learning experience, I find it’s much easier to learn things whilst I participate in fieldtrips” Margareta Vutescu, BSc Environmental Management

 

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Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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