One of the fun things about starting a blog, just like starting a rock band, is that you get to give it a name. You want something which captures, metaphorically or allusively, all of the excitement which your blog or band is going to generate in the months and years ahead, and which signals to the discerning reader or listener that they will be amongst friends.
There is, of course, a cost to this naming protocol in terms of literal accuracy. The Rolling Stones are not, in fact, rolling stones. Crooked Timber is, in fact, not a blog about crooked timber. If you went to Andrew Sullivan’s late lamented Daily Dish in search of dishes, whether recipes or soup-bowls, you would be sadly disappointed.
So every now and again it makes a change to find a blog that does exactly what it says on the tin. If you are in any doubt what to expect from a blog called Practical Ethics, look no further than the title. It is written mainly by scholars in the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Oxford, who wonder what the world would be like if we substituted strict ethical analysis for the instincts and intuitions which tend in practice to guide our decisions.
“How should we respond to chimeras when we are uncertain of their functionality and status? At present, they are destroyed as embryos. But to harvest organs as the scientists hope, full gestation would be needed. When that happens, we should not simply accept that a spade is a spade: if a spade looks the same as it always has, but can now function as, say, an electric guitar, it may have become something else entirely.”
Perhaps, on reflection, ‘Practical & Impractical Ethics’ would be an even more accurate title, since the subject-matter often teeters at the very edge of what society will accept, and very occasionally jumps off into the abyss (as with this argument over infanticide).
But if you’re in search of topics for dinner-table conversation, Practical Ethics is the place to go for inspiration. Here are a few questions to note on the back of your tie:
Should parents have any influence on their children? You will find the answer here.
Is it wrong for a future prime minster to outrage the body of a pig because this lowers the dignity of the prime minister, or because it lowers the dignity of the pig? Answer here (though beware the horrible picture of the dead dog at the top of the post).
Why should we care what happens to future generations? Answer here.
Should doctors allow for the possibility that schizophrenics are possessed by demons? Answer here.
Practical Ethics is not much in the business of listicles, but occasionally it does come up with a cracker. ‘Seven Reasons Not To Feel Bad About Yourself When You Have Acted Immorally’ is one of the best titles for a blog post that I have ever encountered, and falls smack into the category of news you can use. Not that I am in the habit of acting immorally, but one should always be prepared.
Robert Cottrell is editor of The Browser, which recommends five or six pieces of exceptional writing available online each day. He was previously a staff writer for The Economist and the Financial Times.