It sounds very academic, a Moral Philosophy Seminar for Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholars on a Leadership program at the University of Oxford, but this was really four days of talking about home. We all come from developing countries and grapple with issues of crime, death, corruption and censorship on a daily basis.
Simonetta Spavieri (2019, Venezuela, MSc, Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann), a young lawyer from Venezuela, struggled to bring herself to talk about politics in her country- the issues of populism and corruption impact her so deeply. Pashtoon Atif (2019, Afghanistan, MPP, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann and Annenberg) has seen the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and lives in Kabul where the safety of his community is under constant threat. Alfredo Ortega Franco (2019, Guatemala, MPP, Oxford-Weidenfeld/Chevening) is a Human Rights lawyer from Guatemala- a self proclaimed cynic who yet hopes he can find in his law books and philosophy texts some basic argument that can generate universally acceptable understandings of rights and ethics. This is my second WHT Moral Philosophy Seminar, and I am again humbled by the stories that the scholars bring.
The Robin Hambro Moral Philosophy Seminar 2018 aims to explore a series of central questions concerning the origin and nature of our social and political situation. The themes include the ethics of leadership, liberty, rights, and international justice. The seminar poses these ideas to the new cohort of WHT Scholars, who all are studying diverse degrees from Social Science of the Internet to Business. The readings range from Confucius and Erasmus’ ideas of virtue, to contemporary texts grappling with issues of immigration and foreign aid by David Goodhart and Peter Singer.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, a pre-eminent Oxford academic and a close friend of the late Lord Weidenfeld, is on the reading list for the seminar. He warned of the intoxicating power of ideas. Quoting the German poet Heinrich Heine, he cautioned that “philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.” Thus this seminar was about disrupting the stillness.
Dr Nik Kirby, one of the moderators at the seminar thus put forth the “Trolley Problem” during one of the sessions. You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options: Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical option?
The first is a passive reaction, one that we have everyday to millions dying from poverty and war. Are we all complicit in the global wars today? The second choice is a utilitarian reaction whereby we decide to take a life, for the “greater good”- an argument that has been often used to justify torture for the purposes of national security.
It appears that both choices are morally suspect. And thus, for some in the room, a leader must be smart enough to take risks, and strong enough to manage the consequences. One cannot be absolutely honest all the time. If through a lie, I can feed a thousand starving children in my community, is being dishonest not the moral thing to do? Honest men can be brutal, and corrupt men can be philanthropists. As Claudio Gonzalez (2019, Mexico, MPP, Oxford-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann), an investigative journalist from Mexico opined, there was some benefit to being Machiavellian, and doing what was realistic and what enhanced the benefits for his cause.
We did not have all the answers. But there is value in asking questions and thinking about these issues. As philosophical texts, it seems that Emmanuel Kant is right to advocate an absolutist notion of morality, and Erasmus is right to want a king to be virtuous. But when applying these ideals in today’s complex world, one finds that morality and virtue are relative and often ill-defined.
Professor Jeremy Jennings, Dr Sarah von Billerbeck, Dr Nik Kirby, Dr Diana Popescu, Dr Nikki Shure and Dr Paul Sagar helped tease out such realisations. These wonderful professors come from a variety of great universities including King College London, Oxford University and University College London. There was no “stillness” in these people, who treated our ideas as invaluably as those of the titans in the texts.
Among the seriousness of talking about the death penalty, racism and forced migration, there was also levity. From Nik Kirby writing on a white board with a permanent marker and offering cookies to students for responding to the moral puzzles he set to us, to Sarah von Billerbeck telling me stories about her time in Africa that included a delicious peri peri sauce recipe. While one day we were having heated discussions about the merits of socialism and reading Lenin, the next we were thinking up ideas for startups for the WHT Enterprise Challenge with WHT alumnus Atherton Mutombwera. The week was full of contradictions and questions, but with some serious soul searching about what it is to be a leader and a humanist in today’s world.