How to solve real-world problems by thinking philosophically | University of Oxford
The finalists will discuss ethical dilemmas
The finalists will discuss ethical dilemmas

Rachel Carter (Flickr)

How to solve real-world problems by thinking philosophically

Clemency Pleming

This week, Oxford students will investigate ethical puzzles - from the everyday to the extraordinary - through a practical lens.

The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics has been organised by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy. The four finalists in the competition will present their cases in an event on Thursday 12 March which is open to the public.

Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Centre, said: 'This competition aims to bring students from across Oxford together to think about an issue in practical ethics, drawing on their own expertise whether that is philosophy, politics, theology, or even science or medicine.

'Whatever career our students choose, a workforce which is trained to identify ethical problems, think logically about how and why they occur, and find an ethical solution will be a positive step forward for the future.'

The four philosophy students have given Arts Blog a preview of their arguments.

Should I stop playing music in my room because my neighbour can hear it through the wall?

According to Miles Unterreiner, a graduate student at St John's College, we all engage with practical ethics, whether we're aware of it or not.

'Supposing my displeased neighbour wants me to stop listening to music because she can hear it through the wall,' he said.

'I think I have a right to play music in my own room. Should she buy earplugs, or am I obligated to buy headphones?

This is a small and relatively insignificant example, one of the many questions about right and wrong that we ask ourselves every day.

How many lives can you save?

'If we care about the well-being of others, we should try to improve the lives of as many people as possible by as much as possible,’ said Dillon Bowen of Pembroke College, who has researched the most effective ways to give to charity.

'Now, when you first hear this, it seems like a strikingly obvious idea. If I donate £100 to charity, and I have the choice between donating to a charity which can save two children from starvation, or one which can save 20 children, I ought to choose the latter.

'But these sorts of economic questions don't often enter into people's minds when they donate money. People see someone in need, feel a strong visceral desire to help, and donate to the cause. End of moral calculus.

'But when it comes to morality, we need to think more reasonably. It's good that we want to help people, but bad that the way we go about doing it is so ineffective. We need to retain the altruistic intuition to help others, but use our reason to make sure we're helping others effectively.'

How should you live if you care about animals?

Xav Cohen, of Balliol College, is vegan because he cares about the harm that comes to animals from humans eating meat and using animal products. But it's hard to say how vegans should behave if they really want to minimise harm to animals: should they try to convince as many people as possible to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle?

'I found that vegans should really be looking to build a broad and accessible social movement which allows people to reduce their consumption of animal products, rather than condemning anything that isn't full veganism,' he said.

'This will lead to less harm to animals overall. What's needed is a popular label or movement which is plural and accepting, with the only requirement that we do more to reduce harm to animals.'

Should people be allowed to have breast implant surgery if it will harm them?

'Some would argue that a woman’s decision to have breast implants is morally unproblematic, as long as the woman is not coerced into having the surgery,' said Jessica Laimann, also of Balliol College. 'But if women believe that their success, self-worth, and even their careers depend on their appearance, is this still the case? Arguably, breast implant surgery is significantly harmful.'

So should we prohibit this kind of surgery in order to protect people from harming themselves?

'I immediately feel uneasy about the idea of prohibition. There is something deeply problematic about letting a society create people with the desire to inflict harm on themselves, and then trying to solve the problem by prohibiting these people from acting on that desire.

'Prohibiting breast implant surgery would put the lion’s share of the costs of changing harmful social norms on the people who already suffer most from them. Instead, we need to forcefully address the circumstances that make them willing to harm themselves in the first place.'