Sunday, 30 November 2014

Ethical Dilemmas

My college tutor once confronted us with the following ethical dilemma:-

     A fire is raging in an art gallery. You rush in, knowing you have only a few minutes to save a unique and very valuable painting. But in the hall you find a drunken and smelly old tramp, who has sneaked in to doss down for the night. You do not have time to save both the tramp and the painting. What should you do?

This rather improbable scenario was intended to make us think about utilitarian ethics. Which should be considered more valuable: the life of a socially worthless individual, or an irreplaceable  artistic masterpiece - a Rembrandt, let us say? (You can, if you wish, substitute "dog", or indeed any other word, for "painting")

I always think it is useful, in dealing with such questions, to ask what that rather underrated political philosopher Adolf Hitler might have said. Hitler, I'm sure, would argue that it depended upon the tramp's race: if he was a negro or a Jew we should certainly not bother to save him. If he was an Aryan, it might depend on his background: if he was a war veteran who had fallen on hard times, he deserved to be saved out of gratitude; but if he was simply a life-long derelict, then not. Stalin or Mao would surely have abandoned the tramp to his fate as being economically worthless.

I would deduce from this a utilitarian argument: I would not wish to live in a society in which someone in a position of power could decide that my life was less valuable than a painting (or a dog), perhaps on grounds similar to those cited above, or on others equally reprehensible to me. I do not see how this could ever be in my interest. I am, of course, always free to decide for myself that my life isn't particularly valuable ("Don't worry about me: save the Rembrandt!" - or, alternatively, "save my dog!"); but I don't want someone else unilaterally to make this decision for me. That is how dictators and conquerors have always treated the mass of the people - even their own subjects.

In principle, then, we must always treat the preservation of human life, any human life, as being of supreme importance.  

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

In a Strange Land

Cerdic and Zar walked on through the jungle, marveling at the peculiar vegetation. The gravity was much the same as on Earth, but the space-suits, which regulations obliged them always to wear on unexplored planets, were cumbersome and hampered their movements. There were paths leading in various directions, and they wondered who, or what, had made them. But that could come later. Their task for now concerned Vallon, who had disappeared the day before, leaving nothing except his helmet. They had been sent out to find him, or, failing that, to discover what misfortune had befallen him.

Zar paused to look at a huge, brilliant red, trumpet-shaped flower on a bush alongside the path. An insect-like creature the size of a humming-bird flew in, searching for nectar. It feasted for a brief moment, but then the trumpet closed in on it and trapped it. The bush also folded in on itself, the better to enjoy its meal undisturbed.
   "Ugh!" said Cerdic, "Like a Venus fly-trap, but much bigger! This planet is a dangerous place!"
   "I wonder what attracted it?" said Zar. "Was it the colour, or the scent, or what?"
   "No way of telling, as far as the scent's concerned," said Cerdic, "We can't take our helmets off to investigate."
   "Why not? All the instruments say the air here's quite clean: plenty of oxygen. I'd love to breathe proper air again, after all those months on the ship!"
   "Vallon must have taken his helmet off, and look what happened to him!"
   "We don't know that anything happened to him! He just hasn't come back; that's all. He may be walking around here somewhere, enjoying the flowers!"
   "Then why's his radio not working? Why hasn't he been in contact, if only to reassure us that he's all right?"
   "Has it occurred to you that perhaps he doesn't want to come back? Now that after all that time cooped up on the ship, he was free again? He wanted to enjoy it as long as he could. Now maybe he'll turn up again, safe and sound!"

They came to the place where Vallon's helmet had been found. "No sign of any violence anywhere here", said Cerdic, "And no damage to the helmet. It looks like he just took it off, dropped it and walked on"
   "It's like I said, then", replied Zar. "I'm willing to bet he's still alive and unharmed, looking at the scenery, probably not far from here. Let's keep walking, but keep our eyes open. By the way, I wonder who made these paths?"
   "That's what I'm wondering too", said Cerdic.

After a while they came across a space-suit lying on the track. It could only have belonged to Vallon. But of the man himself there was no sign.
   "He obviously found it an encumbrance", said Zar, "So he dropped it and went on without it. I can see his point: these things are really awkward in full gravity".
  "I don't like it at all!" protested Cerdic. "Haven't you noticed something really strange? To get out of your space-suit, you have to take it to pieces, but this one's fully assembled. Now, why would he take it apart, get out of it, and then go to all the trouble of putting it back together again? It's almost as if he'd been sucked out of it somehow. We'd better scout around a bit more, and then take it back to the ship for proper analysis if we still don't find him".

Before they had gone much further, Cerdic stopped and muttered, "Now isn't that odd!" Zar, when he looked, was just as surprised, for what stood before them was a large apple tree, complete with very appetising-looking fruit.
   "What on earth is that doing here?" exclaimed Zar.
   "It's not on earth, that's the problem! So far we haven't seen a single plant that looks anything like our vegetation, and now we find this! Can you explain it?"
   "There's only one possibility I can think of, and it's very worrying. It's as if something here has been observing us, penetrating into our minds, discovering what we want, and then creating this tree just for us ..... Hey, what are you doing? Stop it!"
   He shouted this because Zar had started to remove his helmet.
   "It's forbidden!" Cerdic shouted.
   "I don't care!" Zar replied. He took a deep breath. "Ah, the air's beautiful! So good to breathe properly again! Now let's have a look at those apples. I haven't tasted fresh fruit since we set out!"
   "It's a trap!"
   "Why are you so suspicious? Look; quite possibly something here is reading our minds, but why shouldn't it be friendly? I'm prepared to trust it, anyway. Now, let's try these apples ..... hmm, they smell all right ..... taste all right too! Delicious, in fact! Why don't you try one?"
   "I'm reporting you when we get back! You're disobeying the most basic instructions! You shouldn't be let out at all!"
   "I've had enough of you! Look, man; don't you realize? We've found a Garden of Eden here! Vallon saw that. Perhaps he won't come back at all now. I can see his point. I'm off! You might see me again; or then again, you might not. Goodbye!"
   Zar ran away through the bushes. Cerdic tried to follow, but, handicapped by his cumbersome helmet, soon lost sight of him.

Zar trotted on, headed for he knew not where, breathing in the pure, clean air, rejoicing in the vegetation and insects around him. Already he had almost forgotten about Vallon, and Cerdic and the ship. There were no more of the fly-trap plants to be seen. Although he was on an alien planet, the plants and flowers seemed in an odd way familiar, reminding him of the countryside of his childhood on Earth. The buzzing insects were brilliantly coloured. He was certain the planet was happy, and friendly. But then it came into his mind; if this was indeed Eden, and maybe he was Adam, then there was something missing. Where was his Eve? If the planet could indeed read his mind, it would sense what he needed. She must surely be here somewhere! Then he saw her.

She was reclining amidst the vegetation, in what resembled a deck-chair, though it was probably a gigantic flower. She was very beautiful: the first beautiful woman he had seen since he boarded the ship all those months ago. She belonged to him.
   Zar dropped his helmet and climbed up onto the chair-like flower, and laid down beside her. He kissed her. Her arms wrapped round him in tight embrace and her mouth clamped immovably onto his. And then the flower folded around them and the enzymes from her mouth entered his body, dissolving the tissues until every bone had been liquefied, and sucking them all out until the empty spacesuit could be discarded, as Vallon's had been.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Shrewsbury Black and White Buildings

The centre of Shrewsbury contains more black-and-white buildings from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century than any comparable town in England. This is a selection of them

This is Rowley's Mansion, now surrounded by car parks on Barker Street

This building, on the corner of Butcher Row, is misleadingly known as the Abbot's House.

At the northern end of the High Street we find Owen's Mansion, dating from 1592, above the shop fronts

Opposite this we find Ireland's Mansion, about 1575, which Pevsner considered the finest Tudor building in the town:-

A few yards along the same street we have the entrance to the oddly-named Grope Lane (perhaps indicating a place of ill repute: a haunt of prostitutes)

At the top of Grope Lane is Bear Steps

Castle Gates House, on Castle Street, was originally on the Dogpole (another odd Shrewsbury street name!), but was re-erected here by the Earl of Bradford in 1702.

This is possibly the oldest of all: the King's Head pub on the Mardol. The king depicted is Henry VII: not a common choice for pubs.

There are many other examples in the town, which I shall include on a later entry.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A Student-Teacher

When I was 14, our biology teacher informed us that we would be having a student teacher in charge of us for several weeks, as part of his Diploma of Education. He was a young Australian: I don't remember his name. We weren't the best-behaved of classes, and he didn't keep much control: people used to flick gravel from the fish tanks about the room when his back was turned. His main claim to our attention was that he was a top-class athlete: a long-distance runner. In retrospect it's plain that he was only doing a postgraduate Dip. Ed. at Cambridge in order to get his "blue".
      But he was a good sort of bloke, and we liked him; so when we were warned that he was going to be inspected teaching us, we took pity on him. We told him that we'd read up the lesson beforehand in our text-books, and when he asked questions we'd all put our hands up - those with the rights hands up knew then answer; those with the left hands up didn't know the answer, but were just wanting to look keen. It all went well, and we heard that the inspector had complimented him on the enthusiasm he had managed to instill in the class.
     He continued with us for the rest of term, but he knew it was no use trying to teach us anything, and we just chatted about rugby for the remaining lessons. And he did all right by us, because on sports day he brought along his mate Herb Elliott, the great Australian Olympic champion, to present the trophies. So we may not have learnt much biology from him, but I still remember him with affection.