Trying to understand
“You’re not even trying to understand me”, my friend burst out, frustrated when I’d objected to something that they’d said. I don’t remember my exact response, nor even what the topic actually was. But I do remember being just as frustrated as they were, because I was putting quite a lot of effort into trying to understand what they were saying. It was just that the thing that I thought they were saying didn’t make any sense.
It’s only now, years later, that I suddenly realized just how symmetrical the situation was.
My friend meant X, and my best guess of what they might mean was Y. To them, it was obvious that they meant X, so if I went ahead to assume that they meant Y, then I was clearly just being uncharitable.
When I objected to Y, I meant to say that I was expressing my confusion about my best guess of what they meant. Their best guess of the meaning of my objection was that I could have understood their intended meaning, but chose to be uncharitable instead. And since it felt obvious to me that I was trying to understand them, I took their reply of “you’re not even trying to understand” to that as a sign that they weren’t even trying to understand me.
So in both cases, one of us said one thing, and when the other misinterpreted it, we took it as a sign of unreasonableness – rather than as a reasonable interpretation, given the information that the other person had available. (Which still allows for the possibility that one or both of us really were being unreasonable, of course.)
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> Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.
> Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukip’s two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the day’s developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.
> On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.
> More than any other course at any other university, more than any revered or resented private school, and in a manner probably unmatched in any other democracy, Oxford PPE pervades British political life. From the right to the left, from the centre ground to the fringes, from analysts to protagonists, consensus-seekers to revolutionary activists, environmentalists to ultra-capitalists, statists to libertarians, elitists to populists, bureaucrats to spin doctors, bullies to charmers, successive networks of PPEists have been at work at all levels of British politics – sometimes prominently, sometimes more quietly – since the degree was established 97 years ago.
PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain | Education | The Guardian
> Though in my mid-forties, I’m still in touch with that awkward boy who often felt trapped in the unpredictable currents of teenage experiences. I can’t count the times sex, drugs, and alcohol came rushing into my young world; I wasn’t ready for any of it, but I didn’t know how to escape and, at the same time, not castrate myself socially. I still recall my first time drinking beer at a friend’s house in junior high school—I hated it, but I felt cornered. As an adult, that now seems silly, but it was my reality at the time. “Peer pressure” was a frivolous term for an often silent, but very real thing; and I certainly couldn’t call my parents and ask them to rescue me. I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. As a teen, forcing down alcohol seemed a whole lot easier than offering myself up for punishment, endless nagging and interrogation, and the potential end of freedom as I knew it. [...]
> we now have something called the “X-plan” in our family. This simple, but powerful tool is a lifeline that our kids are free to use at any time. Here’s how it works:
> Let’s say that my youngest, Danny, gets dropped off at a party. If anything about the situation makes him uncomfortable, all he has to do is text the letter “X” to any of us (his mother, me, his older brother or sister). The one who receives the text has a very basic script to follow. Within a few minutes, they call Danny’s phone. [...] At that point, Danny tells his friends that something’s happened at home, someone is coming to get him, and he has to leave.
> In short, Danny knows he has a way out; at the same time, there’s no pressure on him to open himself to any social ridicule. He has the freedom to protect himself while continuing to grow and learn to navigate his world. [...]
> However, there’s one critical component to the X-plan: Once he’s been extracted from the trenches, Danny knows that he can tell us as much or as little as he wants … but it’s completely up to him. The X-plan comes with the agreement that we will pass no judgments and ask no questions (even if he is 10 miles away from where he’s supposed to be). This can be a hard thing for some parents (admit it, some of us are complete control-freaks); but I promise it might not only save them, but it will go a long way in building trust between you and your kid.
X-Plan: Giving your kids a way out (#xplan)
> A tax is charged on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on cakes. The manufacturer [of Jaffa Cakes], McVities, had always categorised them as cakes and to boost their revenue the tax authorities wanted them recategorised as biscuits.
> A legal case was fought in front of a brilliant adjudicator, Mr D C Potter. For McVities, this produced a sweet result. The Jaffa Cake has both cake-like qualities and biscuit-like qualities, but Mr Potter's verdict was that, on balance, a Jaffa Cake is a cake.
> He examined a dozen possible criteria. There was, for example, the name. They are called Jaffa Cakes, not Jaffa Biscuits. This, Mr Potter concluded, was a trifling consideration, though he noted that Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit than cake in several ways. They are packaged like biscuits, and they are marketed like biscuits: they are usually found in the biscuit aisle in shops.
> On the other hand, they have fundamental cake-esque qualities. Thus, they have ingredients of a traditional sponge cake: eggs, flour and sugar. And when Jaffa Cakes go stale they become hard, unlike biscuits, which become soft.
> Does size matter? Jaffa Cakes are more biscuit-sized than cake-sized. Linked to this, cakes are often eaten with a fork, while biscuits tend to be held in the hand. To test the significance of size, I asked the winner of The Great British Bake Off 2013, Frances Quinn, to bake the most ginormous Jaffa Cake the world has ever seen - the size of a flying saucer, at 124cm in diameter, weighing in at 50kg, and containing 120 eggs and 30 litres of jelly.
> Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, does not believe that this XXXXXXXXXXXL Jaffa Cake is any more cake-like than its normal-sized Jaffa Cake sibling. "These days you see all sorts of tiny cakes for sale, some of them much smaller than Jaffa Cakes," he says. "And there's nothing incoherent about a giant biscuit."
Cake or biscuit? Why Jaffa Cakes excite philosophers - BBC News
> Williams asks: What can an ethical theory do, if we are able to build a convincing case for one? He is skeptical about the force of ethical considerations and reminds us that even if we were to have a justified ethical theory, the person in question might not be concerned about it. Even if we could prove to some amoralists that what they are about to do is (a) against some universal ethical standard, (b) is detrimental to their own well-being, and/or (c) is against the demands of rationality or internal coherence, they still have the choice of whether to care about this or not. They can choose to act even if they know that what they are about to do is against some standard that they believe in. Robert Nozick—whom Williams quotes—describes this as follows: “Suppose that we show that some X he [the immoral man] holds or accepts or does commits him to behaving morally. He now must give up at least one of the following: (a) behaving immorally, (b) maintaining X, (c) being consistent about this matter in this respect. The immoral man tells us, ‘To tell you the truth, if I had to make the choice, I would give up being consistent’” (Nozick 1981, 408).
> What Williams in effect says is that the noble task of finding ultimate justification for some ethical standards could not—even if it was successful—deliver any final argument in practical debates about how to behave. “Objective truth” would have only the motivational weight that the parties involved choose to give to it. It no longer is obvious what a philosophical justification of an ethical standard is supposed to do or even “why we should need such a thing” (Williams 1985, 23).
> Yet when we look at many contemporary ethical debates, we can see that that they proceed as if the solutions to the questions they pose would matter. In most scientific disciplines the journal articles have a standard section called “practical bearings,” where the practical relevance of the accumulated results are discussed. Not so for metaethical articles, even though they otherwise simulate the academic and peer-reviewed writing style of scientific articles. When we read someone presenting a number of technical counterarguments against quasi-realist solutions to the Frege-Geach problem, there usually is no debate about what practical bearings the discussion would have, whether these arguments would be successful or not. Suppose that in some idealized future the questions posed by the Frege-Geach problem would be conclusively solved. A new argument would emerge that all parties would see as so valid and sound that they would agree that the problem has now been finally settled. What then? How would ordinary people behave differently, after the solution has been delivered to them? I would guess it is fair to say—at least until it is proven otherwise—that the outcome of these debates is only marginally relevant for any ordinary person's ethical life.
-- Frank Martela (2017) Moral Philosophers as Ethical Engineers: Limits of Moral Philosophy and a Pragmatist Alternative. Metaphilosophy. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/meta.12229/full
Moral Philosophers as Ethical Engineers: Limits of Moral Philosophy and a Pragmatist Alternative