Poison, Embryos and Polyphony @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 3)

If you found all the conversation about philosophy interesting but you are hesitant to read the great minds, maybe pop philosophy would be a good place to turn to. Abhaya suggested that we read Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel who engages the reader with contemporary issues including same-sex marriages, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, PTSD-related perception, etc.  His arguments help the reader understand more about the dynamics involved in decisionmaking when it comes to politics, ethics, morality and day to day living.

Image result for The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint EditionMugdha brought along an interesting book called The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint Edition by Deborah Blum. She’s also the author of another equally fascinating book called Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death which is the story of William James and his fascination for the occult. The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating story of chemistry, poison and the bedrock of forensics. Back in the early 1900s and prior to that, murdering someone using poison could hardly be proved. The coroner’s office was chaotic and it was Charles Norris, a wealthy medical examiner, and a toxicologist called Alexander Gettler who created the field of forensic chemistry and changed the way crime was investigated by providing a proper framework to build investigation upon. “So many things can kill us,” Mugdha said, “So there needed to be some kind of yardstick. These were some questions that needed answering. How much arsenic led to poisoning? What alcohol level in the blood could be surmised as legal?” Many ideas sprang up about the way gas lamps killed people by causing carbon monoxide poisoning, how the Russians were experts when it came to all matters toxic, the death of Napolean by arsenic, the suspicious deaths of well-known celebrities and exogamy in the Indus Valley.

Image result for sing you home jodi amazonPrerna spoke about a book that carried forward the theme of ethical dilemmas that ran throughout the BYOB Party. Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult tells the story of three characters who have trouble conceiving. Zoe, the principle character, is a music therapist. She moves on to a same-sex relationship while her husband moves in with his picture-perfect brother and wife. A legal battle over the existing embryos leads to fundamental questions being raised. Who exactly constitutes a family? Is one kind of family superior to another?

Homosexuality, the concept of deviants, the rights of embryos, egg-freezing employee benefits and surrogacy were discussed. Also since the book is told in multiple voices, there was a long aside on the merits of this kind of storytelling as compared to the less democratic first person point of view.

Literature assists in seeing the other side or all sides by using multiple points of view. Indira mentioned a book by Barbara Kingsolver called The Poisonwood Bible. We’ve talked about this book in a previous BYOB Party too. You also have books by George R. R Martin and Dostoevsky. A famous example of one of the first polyphonous novels is Dangerous Liaisons or Les Liaisons dangereuse by French writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel tells the story of the moral decadence of aristocrats and ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont who embark on a game of seduction and manipulation for which they face unintended consequences.

More books in Part 4.

Caring @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral EducationImagine a world where Care is the guiding principle and Compassion the moral compass?

This is what Indira spoke about and this set the tone of the entire BYOB Party. She chose a non-fiction that she considers to be her Bible- a book called Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education by Nel Noddings. It’s a difficult book if you don’t understand philosophy. The book talks about the basis of moral action, how altruism can be acquired and how when it comes to caring, the act of caring and the memory of being cared for is crucial. This book is important as it emphasizes the importance of moral sensitivity- an ethics based only on rationale is not the need of the hour.

Indira laid out the basic tenant of Western philosophy that Kant had arrived at, a reasonable stand at the time, that Reason was Supreme and Emotion only clouded one’s Logic. Women were hardly ever given the benefit of the doubt and were seen as creatures who could hardly behave dispassionately. The question is how one can respond to a child without basing her response on the immediacy of the environment. Noddings doesn’t advocate moral relativism; she builds her theory entirely based on care.

“This commitment to care and to define oneself in terms of the capacity to care represent a feminine alternative to Kohlberg’s “stage six” morality. At stage six, the moral thinker transcends particular moral principles by appealing to the highest principle – one that allows a rearrangement of the hierarchy in order to give proper place-value to human love, relief and suffering. But women, as ones-caring, are not so much concerned with the rearrangement of priorities among principles; they are concerned, rather, with maintaining and enhancing caring.”

To explain the idea, Indira mentioned the biblical sacrifice of Abraham, a moral and ethical dilemma. There are many such examples across religions, but could a woman ever hold her child hostage to some supra-ethical maxim? Even if she did, it would be the exception more than the rule.

However, Nodding is by no means denouncing Kant as his theory of ethics stands on solid ground. The conversation moved in various directions. Take the case of mothers who confronted the demons of their terrorist children, the Eichman trial, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism and the killing fields of Cambodia. Phew!

Watch this to understand more about Kant and his categorical imperative. If you want a more humane response to ethics, you may like to read a bit about Martha Nussbaum, also known as the philosopher of feelings.

This quote by Kurt Vonnegut is a great way of summarizing this session:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

More books in Part 3.


Ethics and Economics @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for ethics blackburnSamarth started the ethical debate with Ethics by Simon Blackburn.  This book is part of the OUP series of Very Short Introductions to various topics from philosophy to quantum theory. In this book on ethics, Simon Blackburn talks about human conduct and the moral dilemmas that have led to the systems that govern us. Ethics is a branch of philosophy among others including ontology, metaphysics, etc. Blackburn touches on contemporary issues or problems from time immemorial and makes sure that this very complicated subject becomes accessible to the lay reader. The prose is elegant and this makes this slender volume a pleasant read. The immediate takeaway that Samarth had was about the all-encompassing nature and ubiquity of ethics. In a way, ethics is based on some impulse and the gratification of some desire. You have to justify how viable your behavior is in the long term and how it affects the welfare of the people around you. You may think you are operating outside this purview but there are unavoidable questions that steer our life. The book doesn’t have all the answers; it starts a dialog in your mind about human behavior. Abhaya spoke of a similar book, one on democracy, from the OUP series.

A fiery debate ensued about AI ethics- programmers who remain far removed from their actions, bots who imitate human speech, human responsibility to all things not alive, gene editing, molecular cloning….found this interesting article on bot ethics here: https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/16/hard-questions-about-bot-ethics/.

Image result for games in economic development

Pallavi spoke about Games in Economic Development, by Bruce Wydick a book that deals with how strategy is employed in political and economic decisions. The book looks at economics through elementary game theory and offers an all-round perspective across games in natural resource use, education, technology, insurance, etc.

More books in Part 3.