At a time when university administrators are diligently pursuing their corporate goals by closing humanities departments, we need all the public support we can get. And while Classics and history have an obvious public presence, too often the very word "philosophy" strikes a false chord, irresistibly suggesting everything that the true-born Brit mistrusts in academic life: impractical, elitist, irrelevant, unaccountable and frankly weird. The old joke about someone on a bus consoling a friend about a misfortune with the words "well, you've got to be philosophical - don't think about it" just about sums up the Anglo-Saxon mindset.
Or does it? After all, to John Humphrys' surprise, it recently came easily first in a Radio 4 poll that asked listeners which subjects ought to be taught more in schools. And in spite of the sublime philistinism of King's College London and Middlesex University, philosophy inspires and intrigues more people than one might fear. Philosophy may be largely ignored even in the literary reviews of the better newspapers, but philosophy events sell out at literary festivals, and applications for philosophy courses are more than healthy (in my own university only a few vocational subjects, such as veterinary medicine and architecture, have a higher ratio of applicants to places available). People want to discover the pleasure of reading David Hume or John Stuart Mill, or the difficulties of thinking sensibly about knowledge, truth, proof, religion, science, justice, democracy and all the other big ideas that run through their thoughts and their lives.
If the word "philosophy" too often rings the wrong alarm bells, the word "populariser" surely rings them too. It is a point of pride among some academics, and rather too many philosophers, that their subject is so difficult, so obscure, so easy to misunderstand and yet so sacred that any attempt to invite in a general audience is a kind of profanity. Bertrand Russell, perhaps, or Freddie Ayer, barely, might be allowed to wave a condescending hand towards the great unwashed, but lesser mortals, never. Philosophical writing must remain horribly esoteric and fortified with forbidding technicalities and complexities. Or, as Bernard Williams jibed, it is supposed to be at its best when it "resembles scientific reports badly translated from the Martian". Fortunately, many of us have escaped from this particular prison. We believe that we can help the people towards philosophy without diluting it or disguising its true complexities.
Together with the co-editor of The Philosophers' Magazine, Julian Baggini, and fellow philosophers such as Nigel Warburton, Jeremy Stangroom has been one of the most entertaining and diligent of a new breed of interpreters of philosophy for a wider audience. In this, his latest book, he offers the reader a nice sprinkling of moral problems and dilemmas. The title question encourages us to interrogate the automatic thought that there is something "not on" about eating one's own dead pet, even if it is done with due respect and taste. Some of the other questions introduce dilemmas that are familiar to moral philosophers: the execution of an innocent person allegedly justified by a greater good that will ensue; the imperialist intervention in another country on the grounds that its government violates human rights; the difference in our feelings towards two egregious drunks, one of whom luckily drives home safely while the other unluckily kills someone. Some are even classics in cyberspace, such as the notorious trolley problem. Others are less familiar. I particularly liked the questions of why there should not be legislation requiring positive discrimination in favour of ugly people, whether mountain climbing should be banned and whether it is always permissible to look at your own photos.
The first half of the book poses the questions while the second half guides the reader towards some arguments that might help to clarify the issues, or even answer the questions. It is a nice, friendly format, and I would recommend it to anyone who needs a primer in moral thought.
The deep question that remains is why moral questions are so tantalisingly difficult to answer or, if we prefer, so tantalisingly easy to answer, but in several different ways. Is it just, as some philosophers hold, that there are incommensurable values that some people rank one way and some another? We look for principles to apply to cases, but every principle seems liable to exceptions, and few have been happy with any compulsory principle for selecting principles. An alternative, often associated with Aristotle, is that by education and experience a kind of practical wisdom or "nose" for solutions can be formed and trained, becoming eventually a kind of second nature.
The only problem with that is that we do not stop at two. There may be as many natures as there are people, some happily munching on their dead pets, and others fastidiously horrified at the very idea.
Would You Eat your Cat? Key Ethical Conundrums and What They Tell You about Yourself
By Jeremy Stangroom
New Holland, 144pp, £7.99
Published 25 April 2010