Test Sessions First Brush

Each registrant was offered a topic to discuss. Once this choice was made, we matched them to an expert and provided them with a short primer ahead of their zoom meeting. Below are some sample primers

The Zoom Conversations

Jake and Evie (19) – Is Love Moral?

Primer 1: ‘Love – is it a moral emotion?

Sam loved Alex. In fact, Alex was one of, maybe even the only one, who had ever got Sam properly; who understood how deep Sam’s commitment to doing the right thing. Having shared their lives, their dreams, their successes and failures, Sam’s feelings for Alex were deep, peaceful and grounding. And Sam knew that Alex felt the same. There was, nor ever could be, a substitute for Alex in Sam’s life. But none of this was remotely in Sam’s mind as the rescue team sped towards the squall and the sinking boat. Sam was too preoccupied with the horrific realisation that they only had the resources to save one of the two frantic figures looming into sharper view with each perilous second. In the panic of fixing up the slippery ropes and belts which refused to behave in the lashing rain it was only at the last moment, as Sam hovered above the tiny and wrecked vessel with arms splayed wide to grab one of the two desperate forms, that Alex’s keening wails suddenly became clear. Sam didn’t know who the other person on the boat was. But here was Alex. Sam’s Alex. How could Sam reach for anyone else?

In his famous chapter ‘Persons, Character, and Morality’, Bernard Williams presents and discusses a scenario in which a rescurer can save only one of two people in equal peril, and where the rescurer chooses to save his wife. The moral puzzle, if indeed you think there is one, is whether acting impartially given the relation between rescuer and rescuee is is morally excusable or acceptable. The tension here involves whether we think acting morally requires impartiality. Often, the way we speak suggests we do think this. We might even say that acting out of emotion is a rash way to behave – it’s irrational, morally distorting (even when excusably so). If we think emotions (such as love) are bundles of feelings towards things in the world, its easy to see how they do not provide well considered reasons for our action. For reasons imply that we can rationalise why we do what it is we in fact do.

This way of thinking about emotions generally, has made us suspicious that love is always compatible with morality. Furthemore, hardly any modern thinkers defend the idea that love could have, as one of its components, moral goodness.

But this can seem out of step with our ordinary ways of thinking of love. Surely love is a ‘good thing’? Don’t we seek a more loving (as in better) world than a less loving one? How then might we make sense of the love as a moral emotion?  

  • What is an emotion? Is Love an emotion?
  • Is impartiality necessary for an action to be morally right? 
  • Does acting out of emotions, like Love, mean acting immorally or amorally? 
  • Does ‘being Loving’ constitute a sort of moral attitude? Could love contain morality?

Paintings

Timelapse video of painting in progress.

Jenny and Beatrice (age 17) – On Beauty and Love

Primer ‘Simon Says’

Simon was already thinking about the opening chords, even as he opened his eyes in the soft Spring dawn. His enduring fascination with musical structures, with the balance and elegance of certain notes had always been something of a marvel to his doting family. A quiet child and now a quiet adult, Simon preferred to attune himself with spaces swelling with glorious sounds. It was pure pleasure to imagine the soaring note of the violin, sweet, whole and perfect being joined by the cello and creating a network of unwavering and unchanging beauty. As long as one was enveloped in that harmonic heavenliness one could momentarily transcend loss, transience, suffering or regret. Masterpieces seemed to him to be part of a timeless musical salvation – a thought still ringing in Simon’s ears as he dressed for work, arousing in him a heightened appreciation of the green shoots of the indoor plant and the sprinkling of violet crocuses winking through the lawn and the scent of rosemary from the window boxes. His steady gaze now softly attending to all the vibrant sensory complexity of the changing seasons. For him, beauty just was the good. It was love. He sighed and checked the time. Ah to be a man of beauty, to feel so elevated by it was truly something he felt blessed by. He saw the quartet assembling in the distance and he was excited that they would be playing for at least two hours while he oversaw the correct filing and sorting of todays transport cargo. Another straggle of dirty incumbents. At least the orchestra would help alleviate the boredom, he thought, as he straightened the swastika emblem on his way out the door.

  • Can beauty ever be a cause of love?
  • Does our love for something make it beautiful in our eyes?
  • Are evil people capable of love?
  • Can we love ugliness?

Aaron and Freya on ‘Anxiety’

Primer, ‘AnxietyMedication or Liberation?

Sophie stumbles across an enormous painting.  She is startled by the image of a man trapped in what seems like a huge necker cube shrieking silently out of a dark, almost infinitely reccesssive space. Where is she? Where is he? Why are these paintings here and why does she feel like she needs quickly find the exit…she can’t hold this feeling….and she fears the painting may become a portal…and suck her in. Tearing her eyes away she moves onto the next room where she notices an apparently softer painting. This one features a woman on a sofa with her dog, rendered in light flicking brush movements in a chalky palette  An ochre robe is tucked around and under the woman and she notes the lazy contendedness of the white dog. The two companions ar united in the space she mused. Yet, despite the dogs gentle and intimate embrace, the woman looks tense – and vulnerable – and Sophie then  notices – literally exposed, Sophie starts to feels uneasy. again. But still she looks at the picture holding the feeling as somehow more features of this painted world come into view. The woman looks drawn and fatigued, her gaze seems restless and unfocused. As Sophie continues to look, she feels a quiet yet perceptible and profound shift in her sense of the consciousness required to understand and make her way through the emotional maze of the painting. Finally, she drags her gaze away, shakes her head and slowly moves on to the next room.

In the story Sophie happens upon two paintings by two modern mavericks, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Freud is known for making paint ‘work like flesh’ in order to convey something of the sitter’s emotions, while Bacon has confirmed his goal was to ‘bring the nervous system’ into a pictorial world of heightened feeling. Both paintings are often said to convey or offer us experiences of anxiety. Sophie seems to experience mild or general anxious states when looking at the Freud and unbearable or extreme anxious states when looking at the Bacon. This can prompt a number of questions

  • What is anxiety?
  • What is anxiety for? Can it be useful or should it be avoided?
  • Is extreme anxiety treatable with chemical medication alone, or is therapy a better longterm solution? Why?
  • Given all this, is it more apt to associate anxiety with medication or liberation?

Jenny and Alice (15) – On Beauty & Goodness

Primer – How are Beauty and Goodness linked (if they are linked all)?

Simon was already thinking about the opening chords, even as he opened his eyes in the soft Spring dawn. His enduring fascination with musical structures, with the balance and elegance of certain notes had always been something of a marvel to his doting family. A quiet child and now a quiet adult, Simon preferred to attune himself with spaces swelling with glorious sounds. It was pure pleasure to imagine the soaring note of the violin, sweet, whole and perfect being joined by the cello and creating a network of unwavering and unchanging beauty. As long as one was enveloped in that harmonic heavenliness one could momentarily transcend loss, transience, suffering or regret. Masterpieces seemed to him to be part of a timeless musical salvation – a thought still ringing in Simon’s ears as he dressed for work, arousing in him a heightened appreciation of the green shoots of the indoor plant and the sprinkling of violet crocuses winking through the lawn and the scent of rosemary from the window boxes. His steady gaze now softly attending to all the vibrant sensory complexity of the changing seasons. For him, beauty just was the good. It was love. He sighed and checked the time. Ah to be a man of beauty, to feel so elevated by it was truly something he felt blessed by. He saw the quartet assembling in the distance and he was excited that they would be playing for at least two hours while he oversaw the correct filing and sorting of todays transport cargo. Another straggle of dirty incumbents. At least the orchestra would help alleviate the boredom, he thought, as he straightened the swastika emblem on his way out the door.

  • Can beauty ever be a cause of love?
  • Does our love for something make it beautiful in our eyes?
  • Are evil people capable of love?
  • Can we love ugliness?

Jenny & Alice

Jake and Ben (19) – On Moral Growth

Primer – Developing your Morals – why is it like/unlike developing your fashion sense?

Nada was one of those exceptional talents who could create beauty out of bin-bags. Whatever they designed, and wherever they went, they lifted the mood of all around them with their effortless elegance and harmonious colour choices. Everyone, and I mean everyone, looked forward to a visit from Nada. Generous and bountiful, Nada would arrive in a cloud of baking dust that heightened the kindness and sense of collaboration among neighbours. And Nada wasn’t just a design genius, they also performed an important community service. After all, it wasn’t clear what one was meant to do with the hair, skin and teeth of people who were shot for speaking their minds. It seems such a waste just to burn them. Better to do as Nada did and grind them up or weave the useful parts back into clothing. People like Nada was exemplary community leaders.

Imagine a morally inverted world. Actually, let me rephrase that …can you imagine a morally inverted world? Strangely you might find it a struggle. What I mean by this is you might imagine a situation in which someone does something evil but is confused or misled and thinks they have done something good (or vice versa). But you will struggle to imagine a scenario where a character behaves in an evil way (according to this world) but you imagine it to be ‘a good thing’ in the imagined world. For example, we can imagine a world filled with time travel, strange fashion, talking animals, or other weird impossibilities. But we find it  difficult to imagine ‘The wise and kind time-traveling ruler Druigi was improved by mercifully smashing the baby in the face’. The jarring few last words tend to prevent us from happily imagining along with the scenario and often we will turn our (literally) noses away from what we are reading. One of the many puzzles that arises from this is how we come to ‘set’ our moral codes and why, once set, they are very resistant to change. We might also worry that we tend to just ‘inherit’ our moral set when young as this could make us blind to moral improvements.  It seems reasonable to suppose we can at any point revise our morality, and certainly we would need to if we are to continue to morally ‘grow’ as we mature. But it’s not clear just what moral ‘growth’ amounts to or how it occurs. Apart from strong feelings or intuitions about right and wrong, we might think we need strong beliefs or reasons in order to be fully in command of right and wrong. But the story above suggest that feelings and beliefs can come apart when it comes to morality. And if that’s right, we might be unsure as to whether we should follow our heads or our hearts when it comes to being moral.

Here are few questions you might want to talk about with your expert.

  1. What is moral development? Is it – is about control of emotions (Aristotle) or learning to use abstract principles (Kohlberg) or a kind of perceptual sensitivity (Murdoch)?
  2. Is it crucial that one ‘thinks for oneself’ when acting morally, or should we follow our community?
  3. How can we manage the tension between thinking for yourself and following social norms?

Zoom conversation