Thursday, April 28, 2016

Yours in anarchy

This gentleman came up in "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, twice. J. M. Hinton didn't look like this when I knew him, of course. The photo's from 1955 and he was my philosophy tutor at Worcester College, Oxford three decades later.

He might be bemused to have cropped up in a course on religion, being non-religious himself, and delighted at his second cameo. The first came, surprisingly enough, in a discussion of Zen koans. A grievously literal-minded philosophy student wanted to know if koans were solved, and what that meant. I said that from my understanding they were designed not to be solved, or dissolved, but to nag, indigestible, until - until whatever was supposed to happen happened: not something I was in a position to know about. Koans aren't aspirin, but administered in an entirely individualized way by a master to different students, responding (as we learned from Thomas Kasulis) "not to the student's question but to the student's question."

She was unimpressed, so I said I thought the well-chosen koan (chosen by teacher, not student) had to work as language that refused to be sense or nonsense. A bit like - I said, going out on a limb and saying so - my experience as an undergraduate with the ontological proof for the existence of God: the claim that the existence of the idea of a being greater than which could not be conceived proved the reality of such - since to exist is greater than not to. J. M. Hinton had had me read the standard refutations (notably Kant's "existence is not a predicate") but I wasn't buying it. I thought the refutation missed the point. If logic rejects this insight, I said, so much the worse for logic! Mr. Hinton - who knew me to be no more a theist than he at the time - said he didn't agree with me, but that I should keep with it. Perhaps Hinton encouraged my passionate and confused response because he was an anarchist.

One of the anarchists he had me read (in another tutorial, Moral and Political Philosophy I think it was, though he was probably the only tutor to assign anarchism, and I may have been the only one he assigned it to at the time) came up later in today's class. It was time again for "Ethics Diaries," when one of the students leads the class in discussion of an ethical topic or situation of their choice for half an hour, as I sit back, take notes, and try not to take sides. Today's topic was stealing, which was introduced through an anecdote about a shoplifter and the famous "Heinz's dilemma" - may a man whose wife will otherwise die steal a cancer medication he cannot afford, and which the pharmacist, whom he approached, refuses to sell him at a discount?

The oddly paired topics led the discussion to move toward queries about fair prices for things, and before long students were talking about employers who steal from their employees; how smart businesses control for a certain amount of theft; kleptomania, greed and need; cellphone insurance fraud; intellectual property and patents; and whether someone who needed shoes should steal the cheapest shoes she could find or the ones likely to last her the longest. As in "Ethics Diaries" discussions past, the discussion was centrifugal. Usually I just let it spin out of control, but this time the spirit of Michael Hinton inspired me to write a few words on the board:

Proudhon: "Property is theft!"

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