“A day off timetable doesn’t necessarily mean a day off for the brain!”

Philosophy lecture with Dr Peter Vardy tackles controversial topics header image

A Y13 student from The Abbey school in Reading wrote…

What’s our purpose in life? Does truth exist? What’s the difference between putting down your pet and putting down your grandma? Peter Vardy’s ‘Ethics Matters!’ conference proves that a day off timetable doesn’t necessarily mean a day off for the brain!

The A2 Philosophy of Religion class congregated at Reading Station’s Costa, and after hot drinks all round we made our way to Oxford. Located in Oxford’s impressive and beautiful Town Hall, Peter Vardy and his wife Charlotte gave five talks, each relevant in some way to our A Level syllabus.

The first was on Aristotle and Virtue Ethics, a theory which gives guidance as to how you should live your life, based on the pursuit of the type of person you wish to become. This talk left me feeling somewhat unsettled: I had never before considered what humans should be like, and despite Aristotle lauding the pursuit of ‘eudaimonia’, I don’t find this state of ‘well-being’ a satisfactory end for human existence.

Next up was Meta-ethics, focussing on the rise of relativism. Charlotte Vardy conveyed wonderfully how the events of the 20th century shaped not only philosophy, but art and music too. After the horrific blood-shed and devastation of the First World War, there was a strong desire to return to basics, to capture real meaning. The abstract art, the minimalist music and the rise of logical positivism demonstrate this, with philosophers arguing that ‘goodness’ doesn’t exist at all- and who could blame them after the world had endured so much suffering?

The following talk took the format of a lively debate: This house believes that the use of drones cannot be part of a just war. With anyone allowed to contribute from the floor, the arguments were strong and the result was close, but the motion was just about passed!

After a leisurely lunch in the town we returned for the final talks. These were on human rights and the sanctity of life. We were all very proud of classmate Darcy who stood up to deliver her opinion as to whether hate-preacher Abu Qatada’s human rights should be sufficient to prevent him from being deported to Jordan.

The question, “what’s the difference between putting down your pet and putting down your grandma?”, which sounds almost as though it needs a punch line, stemmed from a discussion about what makes us human. Preference utilitarian Peter Singer would argue that the answer is nothing, we must treat animals and humans equally. This seems sound… until we hear that Singer also condones infanticide on the grounds that babies, particularly disabled ones, have a lower level of consciousness than many animals. 

Despite a highly controversial end, I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole class when I say that we greatly enjoyed the day. Our knowledge has certainly been broadened, and our grasp of the A Level syllabus strengthened, but the knowledge imparted also has the potential to change the way we live our lives: this is the definition of ethics after all!

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