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Thin at Oxford - The Theme

The Theme

by Austin Caffrey

(This article was first published in THINK! The Philosophical Discussion Special Interest Newsletter - January 2017)

1970s: Justice, Ethics & Belief

Last year we looked at the 1960s notions of counterculture and social revolution, terms synonymous with that decade. This year we will explore “The Seventies” a period often viewed as one of pivotal changes following the socially progressive changes of the 1960s, such as the increasing political awareness and economic liberty of women, and the civil rights of minority groups.

For me, the 1970s were formative years, starting the decade as a young primary school boy and ending it with a job in the City (London that is). Yes, the decade was full of serious political and economic problems and conflicts. In Britain, the period was marked by coalstrikes, inflation, stagflation and – by the end of it – rotting rubbish on the streets. From a personal perspective, I recall a certain excitement and pleasure of the three-day week, with schools closing, so more time for me to mess about and play with friends. There were dark evenings with candles burning to give us light, and cooking on camping stoves in the kitchen. This all seemed like an adventure. In parallel to the dark political events, popular culture seemed to grow brighter in creativity and expression. Music was my thing and it moved from glittery glam to punk rock bands. I played in the latter, a weekends spraying blue stripes into my then ginger coloured hair. Making sure I could wash it out in time for work on Monday.

The 1970s was also a period of international political relationships and ideals shifting. Every continent experiencing struggles for power, liberation or revolution. One example is that of the Iranian Revolution 1978–9; at the time it appeared relatively ‘non-violent’, but violence can take many forms and in its aftermath not only was there bloodshed, also shed were the hard-fought for rights of women within the state. Instead, increasing discrimination and restrictions were imposed.

From this emerged ‘Islamic Feminism”, a topic that will be explored by our guest speaker Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini. The Iranian Revolution was at heart a religious revolution and, although our talk will be related to religious belief generally, with Keith Jones we will be exploring some aspects of how the nature of ‘belief’ contrasts with ‘knowledge’. Reflecting on the potential dangers that either might have in terms of justifying actions. Religious beliefs have played a role in many conflicts throughout history, and they can, for example, be seen to have played a significant role in “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland of the 1970s, justifying appalling acts of terrorism. Today, religious beliefs continue to influence and shape conflicts worldwide not just geographically, but also with claims to a moral authority in the face of growing scientific knowledge and capability.

Indeed, ‘The Seventies’ saw a surge in scientific developments that gave rise to challenges to the old ‘moral certainties’. So, as one of the major themes for this year’s gathering we will have two talks relating directly to ethical questions. Both will be concerned with medical advances. Graham Kyle will examine the emergence of the field of ‘Bioethics’ as a response to the moral dilemmas that new medical technologies provoked. Barbara Harrison will consider how these provocations were responded to in law, taking account of the prevailing historical views, the uncertainties that arose, and the modern turn to valuing human rights and individual freedoms.

Linking our theme of “Justice, Ethics & Belief” we will explore further aspects of the relationship between belief and justice. By the seventies, psychology had taken its cognitive turn and looked to exploring the workings of the mind in terms of internal processes. Researchers started to realise that our memories don’t work as we think.

Mike Griffiths will explain how our memories are often distorted, that false memories can be created – and the implications this had for the criminal justice system. It would not be possible to consider the seventies without looking at some of the major political ideas that emerged at the time. Here I am thinking of John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ and Robert Nozick’s ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, undoubtedly the most important books on political philosophy published in the seventies, and probably in the 20th Century. To consider each thinker’s views, John Fender will shed some light on the radically different conceptions of a just society, and of the role of the state that each presented, and contributions have arisen since that time.

As always, we will pause for conversation and allow time to ponder how these events and ideas continue to impact upon us today. So do join us for what looks to be fascinating perspective on major ideas and developments of the 1970s

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