My working life consists of thinking, reading, writing and talking about philosophy.
Talking includes teaching, which involves listening as well. I write mainly books, with only a few articles. The books are listed in the section of the website about them. For thirty years I taught at New College, Oxford, and since 1998 have taught at the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College London. (My office in the Centre was caught in the photograph above when George Szmukler unexpectedly pulled out a phone and took the picture, in a moment wrecking my pretence of being an organised person. But its appearance at the top of this page is my admission that George was on to something.)
Some academics find teaching a chore that distracts them from their “real work”, but, like many others, I find teaching enormously enjoyable. It is as much my real work as writing is. This website has a section about teaching philosophy, including -somewhat riskily- film of an ethics class I taught.
Other sections of the website (listed on the banner above) correspond to some philosophical interests: ethics; the light and the dark sides of human nature, and the way the dark side can issue in wars and other atrocities; genetic ethics and neuroethics; and psychiatric issues. There is a section called “bits and pieces”, which is as it sounds: a ragbag of things I find interesting but which do not fit in any of the other sections. A section on "travesties and encounters" is also as it sounds: about incongruous encounters between unlikely people -sometimes dark incongruities but mainly bizarre or comic ones.
The idea of the website is to give information about the work I do and to make available unpublished articles, DVDs, etc. It is also to make available any stuff, previously published but now out of print, which might be worth preserving. When it was suggested that I should have a website, I wasn’t sure what it should be like. It has turned out that each section, as well as giving access to things I have written or videos of lectures or discussions I have been involved in, also has many thoughts, poems, etc by other people. The hope is that, if anyone comes to this site to track down something of mine, they may get interested in some of the other things collected under the same topic. I doubt if anyone would want to look through everything on the website. It is meant to be a changing online anthology for dipping into, not a restaurant with a fixed menu but a cafe.
Despite wonderful work by professionals on the website, I am still Luddite enough to have some unease about the whole thing. Norman Mailer once published a book called “Advertisements for Myself”, and a personal website is likely to have at least a touch of this. The intention has been to try to avoid this trap by focussing on issues and questions, and the "anthology" of other voices is also part of this. These quotations are ones that I have found inspiring, challenging, interesting or sometimes funny. The readers (users?) of this website will have to judge for themselves whether they agree that any of these words fits a particular quotation. The attempt to avoid echoes of Norman Mailer’s phrase certainly hasn’t entirely succeeded, and the extent of the failure is again for the reader to judge. Another aim is to convey how interesting it is to think about the great questions about human life and how we should live it.
And so they tell us that Anaxagoras answered a man who was raising problems of this sort and asking why one should choose rather to be born than not –“for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe”.
We are all conceived in close prison, and then all our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death. Was any man seen to sleep in the cart between Newgate and Tyburn? Between prison and the place of execution does any man sleep? But we sleep all the way. From the womb to the grave, we are never thoroughly awake.
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone. My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me.